I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book, especially because the Iliad and the myths and plays about the gods, men and women involved in the Trojan War are among my favourite reads. Then, of course, there is Madeline Miller’s sublime, Song of Achilles. Yet, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls manages to do what few of these other creative works have done – take us into the heads and hearts of the women who, as a consequence of war and men’s hubris, greed and toxic masculinity become, to use that heartless, revolting term “collateral damage.”
In Silence of the Girls, Barker tells an ancient story in modern and sparse prose, yet without sacrificing poetry and depth. The ten-year long Trojan War is told mainly through the eyes of one of the female “spoils”, the princess, Briseis, who is awarded to the great hero and demi-god, Achilles, after her home is sacked. If you’re familiar with the Iliad, you know what happens to both her and the man who claims her. After some time, King Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to launch the thousand ships, demands Briseis for himself. This happens when he is forced to give up his female prize (the priestess, Chryseis) to end a terrible plague wreaking havoc in the Greek camp. As a consequence, a sulking Achilles, publicly deprived of his “prize”, and with his ego bent and honour trampled upon, refuses to fight any longer and withdraws from battle. The Greeks, who after nine years at war were close to victory, begin to lose ground. And so, the two leaders of men, Achilles and Agamemnon, very nearly bring the Greeks and their allies to the point of destruction – over a girl.
Well, it’s this girl (and others) who is finally given a voice and who describes what it was like for these women who survived the sack of their cities and murder of their families only to be claimed by the very men who committed the atrocities. Not merely objectified as prizes, slaves, and kept for sexual gratification, they suffer in ways the men either don’t understand or remain wilfully ignorant to – all against a backdrop of horrific bloodshed and loss. They also suffer in relative silence, knowing articulating their fears, their grief and anger, will not only put them in danger but make their situation (and that of the women who share it) immeasurably worse.
The strength this takes is never openly portrayed, but it’s there with every word, every action, every visceral description of what is done to them and what they bear witness to. This is a powerful novel about war, yes, that brings to life one of western culture’s most enduring myths and the heroes that colour it, but it’s so much more and so much richer. In giving voice to those we’ve never heard before, by portraying their situation, the daily grind for survival, the bonds that are forged, even among enemies, the threads of understanding that are woven into the everyday, the sheer bravery and grit of these women, what was once a two-dimensional (and stunning) tale is given a third and extraordinary dimension. It brings the horror of the Trojan War to life in ways few renditions do and pictures suffering in such stark prose, it is gut-wrenching yet also, strangely, hope-filled as well. Courage comes in all guises and in this novel, it’s that which occurs in the camps, among the dispossessed and brutalized that is sung.
Powerful, enduring, a classic. Will stay with me for a long, long time.