Hello humans! How many times on this blog have I mentioned my degree is in classical archaeology and ancient history? Too many? Well, one of the reasons I wanted to study archaeology alongside history is that I feel it’s one of the best ways to encounter the people who are missing from our historical sources. It was that same feeling that got me interested in Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. It also counts towards the year of ALL THE RETELLINGS as it is a retelling of the siege of Troy from the perspective of Briseis, a captive woman in the Greek camp. I thought this was an interesting take on the story, let me tell you why.
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman–Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.
Content warning: Rape (basically throughout, it’s not graphics – for the most part – but it is there from the opening to the end). Violence.
I know the story of the Illiad pretty well. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on the Homeric version, and the Odyssey has always been my favourite of the pair, but I have a good grasp of the major players in this story. If you’d never encountered this story before I actually think this might be a good place to start – especially if you’re a bit daunted by the idea of having to read ten years of war. What you don’t get is a lot of the setup, Menelaus and Helen’s ‘courtship’, the summoning of the Greeks to war, the murder of Iphigenia etc. This story starts in the middle of the siege of Troy. I think you pick up enough of the background information to get by in this book, but those looking to fully explore the story may need a little bit more information.
This is an incredibly sad book, whether you know how the siege of Troy ended or not. The world in which Briseis and the other women live is hard, they are forced to serve the men who murdered their friends and families, they are treated as objects to be traded, it’s horrifying – even more so because this is how these women would have been treated, this isn’t a fiction. However, in comparison to other books that have women in terrible situations (*cough* The Surface Breaks *cough*) this book found the moments of beauty and of triumph within that awful experience. That’s not to say that Pat Barker shies away from the horrors of the siege and the situation these women were forced into, but she manages to make the story such that you feel the ebb and flow of the tragedy. This makes it a little easier to read, as well as giving the overall story more of a sense of narrative cohesion. To focus solely on the tragedy of their existence would, arguably, not have accomplished the idea of centring the story around these women, in that sense they would have been as devoid of character as they are in the original myth. Instead, they are shown to be women who exist in a tragedy, not women defined by one. They are people who find places of joy in their captivity and it is those moments that allow the story (and the reader) to breathe within this narrative.
I was pretty pleased with how this book handled the Achilles/Patroclus relationship – which has been one of those things that everyone tackles differently. This story doesn’t ignore their relationship, nor does it make it totally explicit. I think that, on the whole, this book is about exploring different angles to this well-known tale, this way of depicting the relationship is one of those angles.
There are moments in this story that I did feel like it was more about the men than the women, however, I think that’s totally understandable given that you do have to still tell the story of the siege of Troy and that requires a male POV because it was the men who were doing the fighting. But the central character to this story is Briseis and the focus is finding her place, and the place of other women, in this narrative.
This book is not an easy book to read, in fact, it is hugely difficult at times to face the reality of the situation these women were in, particularly since one cannot help but see how little has changed in some situations in the world today. Nonetheless, this is a powerful re-imagining of one of my favourite stories. In terms of retellings, this is exactly what I like to see, a new perspective, new ideas.
My rating: 4/5 stars
The Silence of the Girls is publishing on the 30th of August 2018. You can preorder a copy here (Amazon UK -Affiliate Link) or in your local bookshop.
I received a digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
What say you? What other perspectives would you like to see? Let me know in the comments below!