It’s been frequently observed how retellings of Greek myths have dominated literary fiction lately - from Madeline Miller’s “Circe” to Colm Toibin’s “House of Names” to modern retakes like “Home Fire” and “Everything Under”. You’d think with this prolific focus on the same characters and situations it’d come to feel repetitive, but I’m finding the more retellings I read the more engaged I am. It was particularly interesting coming to “The Silence of the Girls” having read “The Song of Achilles” and “House of Names” since they take different perspectives on the same cast. Pat Barker’s narrator is Briseis, a queen of Lyrnessus who is captured when Achilles attacks her city and kills her family. She becomes a trophy lover and a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon amidst their squabbling in the Trojan War. This status allows her unique access to some of the most intimate moments leading to the downfall of Troy, but she incisively recounts how painfully dehumanizing these men treat her and how her “privileged” status is in reality no more than that of a slave. It’s a refreshing reassessment of the positions of many characters associated with these tales of war who’ve traditionally been treated as peripheral and the novel’s vividly engaging storytelling kept me gripped.
Briseis is viewed as a possession and exclusively for Achilles’ sexual use. At some points I became frustrated that the focus is placed so much on Achilles rather than taking more time to explore the lives of Briseis and the enslaved women she lives with (such as when they work in the infirmary producing herbal mixtures to treat the wounded soldiers.) But it makes sense that her entire world is consumed with Achilles since she’s completely controlled by him and the other Greeks. Their coupling gives her such an interesting perspective on his private life – especially his issues concerning his mother and male lover. Achilles is presented as such a dynamic and fascinating figure (as well as being a thug.) There are humorous observations such as “no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield” as well as more subtle takes on his uniquely intimate relationship with Patroclus: “what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love.” So it feels natural at one point when the narrative is basically handed over to Achilles and Patroclus, but thankfully the focus comes back around to Briseis.
It feels like there is modern relevance in the way Pat Barker writes about several characters and situations. The bloated sense of entitlement and tyrannical egotism of Agamemnon can be seen in any number of bolshy political leaders we have today. The figure of Helen is publicly despised “for the part she’d played in starting this ruinous war” yet all the men want to bed her and the women seek to imitate how she dresses and looks. It feels like there have been modern equivalents in women entangled in sex scandals with political leaders/celebrities who are simultaneously envied and reviled. But the strongest message of the novel is in its insistence on giving voice to the stories of women who’ve traditionally been dismissed or seen as less interesting than the men who subjugated them.
Briseis is magnanimous in recognizing the hardship and suffering of men, many of whom are young and forced to go to war. But she’s absolutely clear in the imbalance that existed between men and women: “They were men, and free. I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.” As the novel goes on and the legend of the male figures around her grows, she seems to be cognizant of the diminutive place she’ll take in the songs and stories about them that will live through time. Her frustration about the unbalanced value given to men’s suffering over her own is palpable: “I’d been trying hard to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story – his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.” This novel wonderfully wrestles back control of that narrative to give visibility to the emotions and perspectives of the many women sidelined in traditional recitations of The Odyssey.