The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is one of those books that I found almost impossible to stop reading. The 291 page tome took me precisely three sittings, with the interruptions being annoyingly mandatory. I make no secret of my fascination with myth, and thus when the opportunity to read about the Trojan War from the perspective of Briseis, the queen who became the slave of Achilles, I simply couldn’t resist.
I’ve studied the Iliad at length through classes and even outside of them out of personal interest, and I have also read and seen other adaptations of the cycle (see my review of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller) but the unique feature of The Silence of the Girls being the story as told from the perspective of Briseis is what caught my attention in this particular case. The idea behind the novel, as evidenced by its title title, is to give Briseis and the other women who were captured by the Greeks their own voice.
For those unfamiliar with the figure of Briseis, she was the queen of Lyrnessus, a city close to Troy and one that was sacked by the Greeks over the course of the ten years spent fighting the Trojan war. The Silence of the Women starts with Briseis recounting the day that the Greeks took control over her city, and the systematic way that Achilles murdered her husband and brothers as the women all hid in the citadel before they were taken to the Greek encampment outside of Troy. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as his war prize (read: sex slave) and from there she describes to the reader how her life is affected by the actions that the Greeks, particularly Achilles, Patroclus, and Agamemnon, undertake.
Much of my enjoyment of the book is due to the fact that I am quite comfortable with and consider myself knowledgeable about Greek Mythology, but I do believe that The Silence of the Girls is remarkably accessible even for those not as familiar with the Greco-Roman classical tradition.
I suppose I should clarify that while the majority of the book is in the first person, with Briseis addressing an unknown listener and telling them her story, there are portions of the book that switch to the third person and follow the actions of Achilles and Patroclus, filling in the gaps in the story where Briseis had no reason to be fully privy to the conversation. While I recognize these diversions as being necessary to the purpose of allowing the plot to move along for a reader unfamiliar with the Homeric Epics, I found them to be a bit jarring as I was taken out of Briseis’ narrative. At the same time, I do recognize their necessity, and since the author begins each chapter with an identifier as to which perspective that chapter is told from, I do not have too much of an issue with it.
One of the great things about The Silence of the Girls is actually how many not great things are in it. I find myself disappointed with acts of erasure, in all forms, and thus the frankness that Briseis’ narration contains was at once horrifying and refreshing. She makes frequent and unapologetic mention of the violence and suffering that she and her fellow Trojans experience. She calls out the rape, murder, and general pillaging that the Greeks undertake, without ever being crass or unnecessarily crude, simply describing things as they are.
My favorite thing about Briseis is that she never allowed herself to forget who she was and who she is. She fully acknowledges what her life has become and what her new place in society is, but at the same time she never forgets who she was in Lyrnessus, and never allows the fact that she and all the other women around her are captives separate her recognition of themselves as humans who have thoughts and feelings of their own.
As I mentioned before, The Silence of the Girls was almost impossible to put down, and I highly recommend it as a read in general, although I would caution that this is not a book for the squeamish, and very well may be triggering for some folk. That said, I do consider this to be a great book, and since I am a firm believer in exposing oneself to forms of media that one may not be entirely comfortable with, I feel that those who are capable of reading books of this nature should do so. As always, I encourage people to stretch themselves but not strain themselves when it comes to engaging with forms of media and interaction.