A Review of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles … how the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.
Last month’s Book Group choice was The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. Having only a scant knowledge of Homer, Ancient Greece and Greek mythology, I was grateful for the potted version of the story cited in the front matter and quoted from The Human Stain by Philip Roth. Achilles and Agamemnon are at loggerheads: ‘It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’ Briseis is that girl and in The Silence of the Girls, Barker gives her a voice.
The story opens with a Greek invasion. Women and girls have been incarcerated for their own protection. Briseis describes the heat and fetid atmosphere of the rooms, her own attempts to help the other women, and then she describes what she sees from the roof of the citadel as the invasion unfolds.
I saw the flash of the upraised spear, I saw my brother lying on the ground wriggling like a stuck pig. And at that moment Achilles, as if he had all the time in the world, turned his head and glanced up at the tower […] Then, with a kind of fastidious precision – I wish I could forget it, but I can’t – he put his foot on my brother’s neck and pulled the spear out. Blood spurted from the wound, my brother struggled for a full minute to go on breathing, and then lay still.
After such a dramatic opening, I anticipated being drawn into the story, but although the writing is engaging and often vivid, I found it difficult to connect with Briseis. For me, her voice was too restrained. For example, when Achilles cannot be comforted after the death of his best friend, Patroclus, she considers her position in a cool, measured way:
Returning to the women’s huts, as early as this, would let everybody know I’d fallen from favour […] Nobody would be nasty, but everyone would take note […] I told myself it wasn’t too bad. He hadn’t hit me, hadn’t lashed out in frustration – in fact, he hadn’t done any of the things he might well have done.
Briseis cares nothing for Achilles but fears that falling from his favour will propel her into the lowest form of slavery. She frequently references the fate of female slaves but there’s a detachment about her that keeps the reader at arms’ length. The opening lines of the book suggest that Briseis is spirited and disdainful, but sadly, we don’t see those qualities in her as the story progresses.
I experienced other frustrations with this book. I struggled to picture the camp and other settings because they are never fully described. Perhaps the author assumed that her readers would know already, or maybe she was deliberately using a tight frame to underline how restricted women’s lives and viewpoints were. Certainly, Briseis knows little of what goes on in Achilles’ head. This might explain why there is an unexpected narrative switch which has Achilles taking up the story.
Whether Achilles should have been given a voice in what Emily Wilson has called “a feminist Iliad” (The Guardian, 22nd August, 2018) is a question beyond the scope of this review, but for this reader, after Briseis’ somewhat unemotional narrative, I found Achilles’ thoughts refreshingly fiery, especially those concerning his friend’s death. Barker convincingly evokes a depth of feeling which borders on the sexual…
… all the time thinking about Patroclus. Not thinking, craving. The shape of his head, that little dent just below the bridge of his nose, the lopsided grin, broad shoulders, narrow waist, the biscuit-brown smell of his skin. The way they were together.
To conclude, in spite of my frustrations I did enjoy reading this book. It was educationally satisfying and might prompt me to read The Iliad in future. In the meantime, I just can’t help thinking that with a title like The Silence of the Girls, the author should have given Briseis a much louder, more stroppy voice.
Next Month: The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn