The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker
Hamish Hamilton
336pp
Hardback, £18.99, Penguin paperback, £8.99

Helen may have brought thousands of Greek soldiers to the gates of Troy, but it was another woman who was at the centre of a dramatic turn of events in the Trojan war. Agamemnon's claims over the teenage queen Briseis, the 'prize' awarded to Achilles after the sacking of Lyrnessus, led to Achilles absenting himself from the military action, to the death of his close companion Patrolcus, his fabled wrath and, ultimately, his own demise.

As a captive woman, Briseis, of course, had no say in her involvement in these affairs of mighty military men. Although her status had been greatly reduced, she is still a human being, not just a prize, as novelist Pat Barker (known for her Regeneration trilogy set in the First World War) eloquently and compellingly reminds us in her latest literary offering, The Silence of the Girls. Barker expands on the Homeric narrative presented in the Iliad to bring Briseis' thoughts and feelings to life. We witness her desperate, vengeful prayers, gory work in the hospital tents, and her understanding and consideration for her fellow slave women.

The main events told in The Silence of the Girls are familiar to many, but there is something refreshing and intriguing about seeing these timeless elements of this ancient story from Briseis' point of view, from her encounter of Achilles in his, at first, unexplained visits to the sea (the realm of his mother, the nymph Thetis) to the chilling signs of the terrible impact of the war on Ajax, that culminates in his suicide.

Amidst the bawdy songs and habitual rape of the Greek camp, Briseis stands in stark contrast to her male captors, and other men. Listening to the lyre and recalling the heroic songs she enjoyed as a child, she remembers how 'the world began to close in around me and I realized the songs belong to my brothers, not to me'. Priam, who once performed magic tricks for her on the walls of Troy, considers himself remarkable as the first man to kiss the hands of the man who killed his son, while Briseis reflects: 'I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.'

Running through the entire novel is the question of agency (or lack ofi it), both that of a woman and of a captive. Briseis is pointedly considered in turn both as an object and, like Helen, personally responsible for the deaths of Patroclus and many other men. For other women, death at their own hands is the only option to avoid a fate like that of Briseis or, even worse, like that of one of the 'common women' who scrabble for shelter in doorways and are freely abused by any soldier in the camp.

With Barker's potent retelling of slaughter, suicide, sexual slavery and sacrifice in the ancient world, The Silence of the Girls forces us to gaze head-on at the harrowing experiences of women during war.

Lucia Marchini

 

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