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Review: The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker
Doubleday, 2018. 291 pp. $28

Readers familiar with the Trojan War myths will recognize the name Briseis as belonging to the woman captured by Achilles and taken by Agamemnon, an insult that results in a fateful quarrel. Achilles sulks, and in his absence from the battlefield, the Greeks suffer reversals, the most serious of which is Patroclus’s death. In the traditional telling, the woman herself is a thing, a bauble to be claimed, hardly worth mentioning except the trouble she causes.

But in this beautifully imagined, finely wrought novel, Briseis has her say. And when she does, she speaks for all women, those of Troy and elsewhere, of queens like herself and commoners. As she remarks with incisive bitterness, when bards craft the songs of great deeds and heroes, they don’t mention the truth of conquest, “the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.” Needless to say, neither Briseis nor her sisters in captivity cause any trouble, but even the presumption that they do suggests the tremendous power that men have — to tell the story of their battles, as though those were the only ones fought, or theirs the only story.

Achilles surrenders Briseis to Agamemnon, first-century fresco from Pompeii (courtesy Naples National Archeological Museum, via Wikimedia Commons)

Utterly engrossing from its first words, The Silence of the Girls begins with Achilles laying siege to Briseis’s home city, Lyrnessus. She hears his voice, his war cry, before she even sees him, and what will happen is never in doubt. After the battle comes the looting:

Gangs of men were dragging heavy loads out of the buildings – carved furniture, bales of rich cloth, tapestries, armour, tripods, cooking cauldrons, barrels of wine and grain. Now and then, the men would sit down and rest, some on the ground, some on the chairs and beds they’d been carrying. They were all swigging wine straight from the jug, wiping their mouths on the backs of their bloodstained hands, getting steadily and determinedly drunk. And more and more often, as the sky started to fade, they gazed up at the slit windows of the citadel where they knew the women would be hiding.. . . For hours, I watched them strip houses and temples of wealth that generations of my people had worked hard to create, and they were so good at it, so practised. . . . And then they turned their attention to us.

As this description suggests, Barker writes as if she’s actually seen everything that goes on, known all these mythical characters from personal experience. Achilles, a killing machine of great physical beauty but no heart save for love of Patroclus, his childhood friend, makes a disturbingly believable portrait. He’s difficult to sympathize with, considering his ego, merciless outlook, and selfishness, yet you also understand how he’s never grown up — and even realizes it, a little. Barker astutely wonders what it must have been like for Achilles to have a goddess for a mother, and what that must have done to his psyche. Patroclus is much kinder; he almost sees Briseis as a person — almost. Agamemnon’s a loser, a bully said not to risk his skin in battle, and as such, fears that others will see his weakness.

The protagonist, meanwhile, refuses to accept her fate, as Patroclus counsels her to do in her first hours as a slave. Her struggles to cope with how it feels to be unseen, unheard, raped nightly by the man who killed her brothers, knowing that however bad her life is, it could be worse — Achilles could tire of her and hand her to his men — speak loudly. It’s her story, all right, and she makes the most of it. Barker does follow the myth, but there are so many unexpected moments within that framework that nothing feels predictable.

In that, I’m reminded of my favorite Trojan War novels, The War at Troy, by Lindsay Clarke, and The Songs of the Kings, by Barry Unsworth. But I think Barker goes one better; it’s my favorite of hers since Regeneration. Neither Clarke nor Unsworth would have allowed the few anachronisms in which Barker indulges — a fist pump, Briseis’s knowledge that rats and plague go together, and, most important (and pervasive), modern British slang. Some readers will be put off by that, and at first, it pushes you out of the narrative — a definite no-no — but these soldiers talk like soldiers, and they seem entirely credible.

The Silence of the Girls may not be perfect, but it’s pretty damn close.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.