The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. 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 coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army 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.
The opening lines of The Silence of the Girls let us know that this is not just a retelling of the glory of Achilles:
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we call him “the butcher.”
The Silence of the Girls is narrated by Briseis, a noble woman of Lyrnessus who is taken into captivity by the Greeks when her city is sacked during the endless Trojan War. The men, including Briseis’s husband, father, and brothers, are slaughtered. Male children are killed; even pregnant women are run through with swords to prevent them giving birth to sons. The women who survive the attack are now prisoners, slaves and war prizes, at the mercy of their fierce captors.
Briseis is claimed by Achilles, the godlike warrior who leads the Greek armies throughout the long war against Troy. Through Briseis’s eyes, we see the grit and gore behind the glamour of the Greek heroes — men like Achilles, Ajax, and Odysseus, about whom legends and poems and ballads have been written. History is written by the victors — but who writes about the women? The women represented here by Briseis are not fighters. They have everything at stake in the war, but absolutely no power. As the book demonstrates over and over again, the women are the true victims here: They are the ones who are raped as part of the division of loot when a city is sacked; they are the ones forced into servitude; they are the ones sacrificed to appease the gods or to mourn a hero’s death or to settle a score.
This book tells the other side of the story, showing life in camp, the daily struggles of the enslaved women, and how powerless they are to change their own fates. The women are at the mercy of their captors, and their lives have no meaningful security other than what’s given to them and what can easily be taken away.
In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis gives voice to all the silent women victimized by war. These women have been erased from the narrative, so that the story that is told is all about brilliant military conquests and the struggles of men:
What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
Is this meant to be a direct rebuke to the narrative focus of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which focuses on the love between Achilles and Patroclus? Having only recently read The Song of Achilles, I must say that it’s jarring to go from that book to The Silence of the Girls. The Song of Achilles is just such a beautifully written book, and I loved the love between Achilles and Patroclus. It’s hard to let go of the glory of that book and re-read the same events through a much different lens, as we’re forced to do in The Silence of the Girls.
I found The Silence of the Girls a powerful read, compelling but brutal and difficult to stomach. The writing is straight-forward, although I was a bit confused by the inclusion of several chapters told from Achilles’s perspective. In a book that’s supposed to be expressing the voices of the women, I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to include his point of view. The events as narrated by Briseis differ in some key ways from their portrayal in The Song of Achilles, so readers of that book should be aware that an open mind is needed.
War is hell… and as The Silence of the Girls makes clear, the hell of war doesn’t stop at the edge of the battlefield. In giving voice to the silent women. The Silence of the Girls unveils a fresh perspective on classic myths and legends, and makes sure that those who suffered aren’t written out of history. Highly recommended.
Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 291 pages
Genre: Historical fiction