The Silence of the Girls, authored by Pat Barker, is a fresh, relevant perspective into the legendary city of Troy – and its destruction. While no one truly knows what happened there, this is a story whose details leave little to the imagination. This is a story just now being told.
This story is about the women. Remember them? This is not about strong Hector, or the beautiful Paris, or a tanned Brad Pitt. This story belongs to the mothers and daughters of Troy. The raped, enslaved, mutilated, and tortured. The women who watched their children die right before their eyes. The young girls stolen away as prizes, some of them as young as ten or eleven.
This book is for them. This book gives them a voice, a war cry of their own.
Briseis, former queen of Troy’s neighboring kingdom, is our narrator. She is taken by the Greek army in the initial siege of Troy, along with several other women and children. Before she is captured, Briseis watches each and every one of her brothers die at the hands of Achilles: the Greek, half-god warrior of legend. In some cruel twist of fate, she is chosen to be Achilles prize for his prowess in battle and suddenly finds herself at his mercy.
Early on the reader will notice just how cannily observant Briseis is. And this isn’t solely aided by the fact that the novel is written in first person. She sees everything. The other women in the camp are people, thanks to her. She notices their quirks and their habits, keeping them human while the men see them as objects. She analyzes the Greeks and their own mannerisms, considering their tactics and their relationships. Briseis never forgets what they did to her. To her city. Remembrance is her only weapon and she knows how to wield it.
“That night I poured the wine – quickly, as I always did, because I hated being near him – and then, stepping back, I noticed the tunic he was wearing. It was the one I’d woven for my father….Of course this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced that jolt of recognition; the day after my arrival, I’d noticed a gold serving dish from my husband’s palace standing on a side table in the hall. But this was personal. I looked down at the fleshy folds in Myron’s neck and once again the prayer sounded in my mind, involuntarily, almost as if the words were speaking me.
Lord of mice, hear me!
Lord of the silver bow, hear me!
Lord whose arrows strike from afar, hear me!
God of plague, hear me!” – Pat Barker
This woman is smart. She’s relatable and realistic, adaptive in the hands of Barker. Briseis gets to know the men that invaded her home and killed her family, keeping a close watch on Achilles. And what I love most about her relationship with him is that it’s not the glossy, sweeping, cinematic version that a lot of people know. She does not fall for him. Rather, her feelings for Achilles are changing and ambiguous. Much like the obscure sea goddess he calls mother.
At first, hatred. He murdered Briseis’s family. Destroyed the life that she knew. Took her as his reward. Kept her as his property. Briseis vows to never forget. The memories of her life before, of Troy, are all she has left. She will not lose sight of herself, even if the men around her make her feel like less of a person each day.
And while this is her story to tell, it unfortunately can’t help but drape across Achilles shoulders.
She starts to spend more time with him and his close comrade Patroclus – not by choice, as she [Barker] will be sure to carefully remind us. Briseis’s feelings suffer a subtle shift in direction at this point. Her anger does not dispel completely. But as she watches these two men – boys, really – interact, she can’t help but push that aside and bear witness to their connection. They are friends and brothers and lovers all at once.
Briseis can’t help but wonder at the significance of the two and the framework of war that now surrounds her life and theirs too. She doesn’t quite know what she’s looking at, but she almost – as much as she doesn’t like it – seems to feel a connection to them herself. It sort of turns into a little pity later on, but it definitely runs as something much deeper. Achilles and Patroclus’s relationship doesn’t really have a name and if Briseis can’t know, neither can we.
It’s something Barker swiftly dances around, she switches focus around rather continuously to keep the story moving, including shorter chapters that give the reader a sneak peek into Achilles’s perspective, which, I’ll say, are very well done and show a side of him not truly seen by anyone before. Except perhaps Briseis.
“For a moment, they stood facing each other, not speaking, then Achilles moved in closer till he was resting his head against Patroclus’s forehead. They stayed like that without moving or speaking for a long time… I stepped back into the shadows. I knew I’d stumbled on something too private to be witnessed. There were always those, then and later, who believed Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. Theirs was a relationship that invited speculation: Agamemnon, in particular, couldn’t leave it alone, though Odysseus was nearly as bad. And perhaps they were lovers, or had been at some stage, but what I saw on the beach that night went beyond sex, and perhaps even beyond love. I didn’t understand it then – and I’m not sure I do now – but I recognized its power.” – Pat Barker
The eventual death of Patroclus was the Achilles heel of the book. It was the turning point for the war and for many of the characters. For the warrior Achilles it was only vengeance, grief, and death ahead. For perceptive Briseis it was clarity, and also pity – something she never thought she could feel for a Greek soldier. From that point on, the story senses that Achilles is somewhere else – he’s gone down a road which only he can understand – shifting focus back once more to Briseis’s mind.
The news that she is pregnant, that prospect of new life, keeps her sane as she thinks about what her future will be. Reflection is her strength, as a man’s sword is his. And when the war does finally end, won by Achilles and signed by his death, she doesn’t weep over him. She doesn’t weep at all. She’s stoic. Watchful and strong in the eyes of this tale, as all the women are.
“But it’s the girls I remember most. Arianna, holding her hand out to me on the roof of the citadel before she turned and plunged to her death. Or Polyxena, only a few hours ago: “Better to die on Achilles’s burial mound than live and be a slave.” I stood there, in the cold wind, feeling coarse, lumpen and degraded in comparison with their fierce purity. But then I felt my baby kick. I pressed my hand hard against my belly and I was glad I’d chosen life.” – Pat Barker