“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.”
Contemporary retellings of classical Greek myth are certainly having a moment right now. They’re just about everywhere – a fact that harps to the the richness of the original legends, in both the presences and obvious absences that characterise those stories. There is something undeniably riveting about the myths upon which these retellings rely, extracted largely from Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad. Beyond the excitement of the adventures that they depict, both epics profile characters with particular eye to their complexity. Odysseus – perhaps Homer’s best loved ‘hero’ – as the trickster with a talent for deception, not always likeable but endlessly entertaining. Achilles, with so much focus on pride and honour, but with an edge of pathos that never evades the reader’s perception of his motivations. Beyond the fruitful offerings that these characters and events pose for authors looking for new angles, it is the absences that most intrigue. Here, of course, we refer largely to the women.
As Madeline Miller’s Circe offered us the backstory of one of the Odyssey‘s most interesting and unexplored characters, an increasing number of authors have taken up the challenge of giving voice to the voiceless. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls does exactly this. Through the character of Briseis – the former queen of Lyrnessus, awarded to Achilles as a ‘prize’ for his skill in battle – Barker offers a unique and persuasive opportunity to view the story of the Iliad through the eyes of the countless women captured and enslaved by the invaders. It is a powerful premise and one that Barker delivers with incredible sensitivity to the reality of these women. The Silence of the Girls begins pre-Iliad, with Briseis describing the sacking of Lyrnessus. We learn early of Achilles’ reputation – a reputation for violence and cruelty for which Barker, fortunately, never permits an apology. The reader follows Briseis as she is taken back to the invaders’ camp and awarded to Achilles. We watch as she suffers rape at the hands of both Achilles and Agamemnon, utilised as a bargaining tool – an “it.” Yet, for all of its pain, we also see these women rally and survive. The Silence of the Girls provides us insight into the chasms of voicelessness carved out by the Iliad, offering a space for this community of women to assert their own collective and individual narratives over the male voices that traditionally dominate the story.
“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’. Swift-footed Achilles. Now there’s an interesting one. More than anything else, more than brilliance, more than greatness, his speed defined him. There’s a story that he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: ‘You can’t kill me, I’m immortal’. ‘Ah, yes’, Achilles replied. ‘But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead’. Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.”
The novel’s opening paragraph – quoted above – is an audacious one for a book that purports to be centralising the voices of silenced females. Yet it is this audacity, in providing space for the two stories to coexist so fully, that makes The Silence of the Girls such an incredibly powerful retelling of Homer’s Iliad. Barker never shies away from the dominance of Achilles’ character. Her skill, however, rests in her ability to represent the Iliad‘s best known personalities – Achilles, Agamemnon, Patroclus, Ajax – in all of their traditionally unquestioned power, without ceding authority to their voices. This balance lies in the fact that Barker does ask questions. Through Briseis and her skilfully rendered first-person narrative, these male characters are turned over and examined. Achilles becomes a man of extreme hubris, haunted by his mother’s abandonment, “…not a man at all but an angry child…” Patroclus is celebrated for his kindness to the women and Briseis recalls him as one of her closest friends. Yet it is always remembered that, in battle, “he was every bit as ferocious as the rest of them…” This duality of the male characters provides the opening through which Briseis is able to assert her own authority over the narrative of the Iliad‘s events. The men are stripped of myth and glory and examined for what they are – men who can be kind and even loved by their captives, but still the men who have slaughtered fathers, brothers, babies, and pregnant women in the name of pride.
While the men undoubtedly hover over the narrative of the novel, it is the relationships between the women that Barker renders most successfully and evocatively. From the chapters opening pages, we are given an insight into the way that the women respond to the sacking of their cities, to watching the deaths of their loved ones, and to their eventual enslavement. Through the duration of The Silence of the Girls, the women are empowered as both a community and as individuals. In the limited space provided to them by their life in the camp, the women still make choices. Tecmessa decides to love her captor, Ajax, and establishes a strangely familial existence within the context of war and captivity. Briseis chooses not to lie to Achilles about her rape by Agamemnon, although understanding that this will prolong her own suffering. The dynamic asserted through the choices that the women make can be an uncomfortable one – particularly when it comes to Briseis and her reaction to the sexual violence that she experiences – but there is little room for proactivity on the part of slaves.
“What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it – expected it, even – but there was nothing like that, and at least it was soon over. He fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing. Something in me died that night.”
Given the novel’s subject matter, sexual violence is obviously one of the central themes of The Silence of the Girls. Dealing in such troubling and raw subject matter inevitably invites strong opinions about what represents an appropriate portrayal of rape and sexual servitude. It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the main criticisms of The Silence of the Girls is that it dilutes the violence by failing to adequately capture the pain of female enslavement in war (see the New York Times review). I disagree. The novel certainly avoids describing in graphic detail the sexual encounters that take place between the women and their enslavers. This avoidance feels purposeful and not for a desire to sanitise or inspire comfort in the reader. Briseis’ relatively unemotional reaction to her initial rape by Achilles is borne from the knowledge that this is the inevitable and unavoidable consequence of war. The theme is emphasised again when Briseis encounters Priam, King of Troy, and begs him to take her back to Troy:
“Well, then, you know what happens to women when a city falls. There isn’t a day goes by I don’t think of it. I look at my daughters…’ He shook his head as if trying to dislodge the images that had gathered there. ‘At least I won’t live to see it. With any luck I’ll be dead by then’.”
Priam understands that there are fates worse than death and, in this case, it is the women who will suffer most. To deride Briseis’ reaction to rape as inattentive to the reality experienced by rape victims is to suggest that there is one right way to respond to rape. I’ve spent many years researching and writing about women in conflict, where rape and sexual violence are common place, and I feel qualified to say that Barker’s portrayal is, in no way, “circumspect” or “a betrayal” (as alleged by the NYT review). It reflects one of many realities and, if anything, evokes even greater pain at the idea that any woman would feel an element of quiet resignation to this fate. Briseis’ initial reaction to rape is also accompanied by moments of particularly acute violence. When handed over to Agamemnon and raped, Agamemnon dismisses Briseis by “…inserting a finger between my teeth to prise my jaws apart, he worked up a big glob of phlegm – leisurely, taking his time about it – and spat it into my open mouth. ‘There’, he said. ‘Now you can go’.” The lack of graphic sexual descriptions makes these small and otherwise relatively inconsequential moments all the more disturbing. Even with the myriad ways in which violence pervades the novel’s pages, this encounter between Briseis and Agamemnon was the one that left me most affected.
Despite its depictions of these painful realities, The Silence of the Girls never consigns the women to a fate of absolute victimisation through the elimination of all agency. There are moments of victory and empowerment that, as small as they may seem, realise a truly three dimensional portrait of the power that victims retain. There is hope that never entirely escapes Briseis’ perception of her own situation and it is a hope that remains independent of her fate at the hands of the men:
“As Tecmessa went on singing, the men gradually feel silent and listened. She had a sweet voice. I looked around the group. There they were: battle-hardened fighters every one, listening to a slave sing a Trojan lullaby to her Greek baby. And suddenly I understood something – glimpsed, rather; I don’t think I understood it till much later. I thought: We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too.“
The Silence of the Girls is a beautifully realised example of what classical retellings can achieve when at the hands of an author as skilled as Pat Barker. At the very start of the novel, Briseis tells us that in the presence of Achilles and his story, no one can get the last word. Yet The Silence of the Girls is a story that will never belong to Achilles. It is the domain of the women, proving that fiction can be strongest when it dwells in the space of traditionally silenced voices.