Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is another one that I knew going in I was going to love but didn’t quite anticipate how hard I would fall for it. Was it the language so rich I wanted to plunge my hands in it? Was it the sadness and hope and defeat and anger all woven into a striking tapestry? Was it because some part of me clearly hasn’t stopped obsessing over Greek mythology since picking up my first book of them when I was, like, five?
Don’t know. Don’t care.
The Silence of the Girls follows Briseis, who is mentioned only briefly in The Iliad as the, well, pawn in the center of Achilles and Agamemnon’s pissing contest. From that utter theft of her identity, Barker builds a resilient character whose lack of making the best of things or hope for better days ahead somehow makes her all the more tender to behold. This Briseis knows her place in the world, that no matter how well she could fight or otherwise contribute to society, the best she can hope for is to be married off to a kind man. We meet her as the somewhat new bride of Mynes, who is far too occupied trying to keep his city from falling to the Greeks to worry about his wife or, indeed, mother. Briseis is holed up in a tower with the rest of the women, waiting and hoping for the best.
The best does not come. And in that early defeat, Briseis watches some women throw themselves off the top of the tower rather than be taken as the spoils of war like the rest of them. Briseis wonders which of them is braver, those who jump or those who stay. It is a question that is never conclusively answered in The Silence of the Girls. Briseis, who is given to Achilles, at turns thinks herself a coward for choosing to live but she also endures tremendous amounts of violence and uncertainty with the faint hope that perhaps someday things will improve somehow.
Barker makes clear, however, that for the women in Briseis’ world, the difference between their own society and that of the captors is one of station and little else. As Mynes’ wife, Briseis is a queen but has little to no autonomy. As Achilles’ concubine, Briseis stays in a hut with many of the other women when Achilles has no need of her. In both cases, she has equal amounts of autonomy and voice, which is to say not at all. It’s a fascinating and compelling element that builds into both tension that bids you read faster and a sense of defeat that wafts from the pages.
Along similar lines, that characterization of Greek and Trojan culture makes it difficult if not impossible to root for anyone but the titular girls. Who wins and who loses matters little except for how the women will likely fare under their reign. At the same time, it’s difficult to hate anyone, either. Even Agamemnon, who is unquestionably awful, gets enough depth to make him almost pitiable, too. Achilles is particularly richly drawn and you get a sharp sense that he is man fundamentally broken by both his circumstances and own insistence of rightness that supersedes seemingly everything else.
“War is hard on women,” says the king of Troy late in the book and if seeing what happened to Briseis and her clanswomen wasn’t enough proof of that, we see it acutely in how his wife and daughters fare when the walls come down just chapters later. What happens to the then and throughout the book women can most charitably be called rape. However, Barker doesn’t ruminate on the violence of the act. Rather, her focus is how violence is baked into every part of the world—and on how when the swords are sheathed and the shields set down, that violence remains on the shoulders of the women.