The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Feminist retellings of Greek myths are flooding book shelves, and they seem to be occupying an ever-growing corner of the market. Arguably, this trend picked up steam following the publication of Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls in 2018.

This is undoubtedly a powerful novel; it is based on Homer’s poem The Iliad, one of history’s most epic stories. Many of us are familiar with its cast: Achilles, Hector, Paris, Agamemnon, Priam – and of course Helen of Sparta. A woman famous only for her face.

But Barker reframes the story of the Trojan War to centre on Briseis, a former noblewoman who is abducted and enslaved to Achilles as a prize of war. She is raped, brutalised, and imprisoned, but through her eyes we are given an alternative vision of war, and of the man who was defined by it.

It had all happened so quickly: hauled from darkness into light, stripped of my veil, displayed barefaced like a whore in the marketplace… like being in the arena that first day all over again. And, at the end, that one moment of disturbing intimacy when Achilles had looked straight into my eyes and suddenly there was nobody else in the room and I knew I couldn’t lie.
Tell him he can fuck her till her back breaks.

The book opens and closes with the fall of a city. Barker emphasises the inevitability of the fall, the dreaded anticipation of it, and ultimately its anti-climax. She demonstrates that war is not something that simply ends, it is a violent, penetrating force that irreparably damages everything it touches.

Barker accentuates Briseis’s humanity by demonstrating Achilles’s inhumanity. He is portrayed as a contradiction, a shadow of a man with an obvious and gaping hole inside of him. But at the same time he is formidably present; strong and terrifying, the smells and textures of him are wrenched out with voyeuristic detail, leaving him exposed and gutted:

Achilles’ body was hot and heavy. Cautiously I moved my thigh, and my skin unpeeled from his. I felt sticky, full of him. On any other night, I’d have been longing for the cold slap of waves as I walked into the sea, but not tonight.

Achilles is a dichotomy. He experiences constant pain and disillusionment by believing in two contradictory things at once. He understands that war is essentially futile, but he is compelled to fight nonetheless.

The sections which describe the relationship between Achilles and his unearthly mother stood out to me. He is torn in many ways, between the pain of loving his absent mother and lashing out violently against other women. His love of other men, however, is unbounded. I get the impression that he punishes himself for his own contradictions, and this manifests most obviously is in his erratic wrath, uncontrollable anguish and inability to successfully grieve.  

Every morning he goes to stand on the beach, on the strip of hard sand, and strains his eyes for the first glimpse of his mother.

At first, she’s no more than a dark stain on the white gauze of mist, but then, as she wades towards him through the shallows, he catches the silvery gleam of her skin. He both longs for and dreads this moment, because every meeting now is a prolonged goodbye.

The world building is strong. Reading it, I felt like I could smell the camp, the food, and the fatigue and filth of battle. Magic is not neglected, but it is used sparingly – for example the restoration of Hector’s corpse and Achilles’ mother, a Nereid called Thetis, emerging from the sea.

I was knocked sideways by the descriptions of war, which rain down like heavy blows: “Blood, shit and brains – and there he is, the son of Peleus, half beast, half god, driving on to glory”, although I understand that for some readers the relentlessness of these sections will be off-putting. It is the least flowery story you will ever read. It hit me again and again and again, and yes, it was wearisome, but it undeniably packed a punch.

For this, I’m happy to forgive the odd out-of-place phrase and heavy-handed sentiment – when Helen’s internal voice remarks “I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over” – because they serve to push a valid story: the struggle of women who try to extricate themselves from a narrative dominated by men. Briseis’s story is a tale as old as time, yet has been consistently and unapologetically neglected.  

It is a simple book in this regard, and does away with the mythological tropes of great heroes and damsels in need of saving. Instead, it is brutal and bleak. Barker is clear: war should never be portrayed as a vehicle for heroism, because it can only ever be a tragedy, and being unable to confront this truth dooms us to repeat the same mistakes, time and time again.

As a title, The Silence of the Girls feels like an incomplete slaughter. The women are killed, literally and figuratively, and yes, their voices are indeed silenced by history. But their death is not complete, and as such they become symbols of a faint, glimmering hope.

Briseis’s survival signified, to me at least, a cycle of ironic regeneration. That those who have suffered and survived are the ones best placed to learn lessons from history, but are they are also the ones who are forbidden to implement them.

 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton, 2018)

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy

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