By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #15 (Part Three) – The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Iliad Retelling #3: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Do the women of the war really have anything to say?

Did you know “January” was based on the Latin god Janus? He is the god of beginnings, endings, time, and transitions. Usually he is depicted with two faces, one observing the past, and one the future. Inspired by this god, I will write all my January posts about three books that do exactly this: retelling an ancient story, namely the Iliad, but with a voice of the future. Up next: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

If you were to write down the story of your life, would you be the main character? Or is there someone else who is more important than you? Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is about exactly this: about Briseis, a princess from Lyrnessus, who was condemned to become Achilles’ slave after he sacked her city and killed her entire family. The story, unlike the other novels I’ve discussed so far (a feminist version and a personal one), doesn’t focus on the bloodshed on the battlefield, but on what happens after, at camp. It is a novel that contemplates the idea of status, pride, and ownership.

The Silence of the Girls starts with Achilles, the best warrior the world has ever seen, and the fear he inspires. So when Briseis hears him from afar (for such is the volume of his battle cry), she knows for sure that her life is over, in one way or another. She sees her brother being killed by Achilles, and her sister jumping from a building so she dies in freedom. Briseis is taken as a slave by that same man who brutally murdered her entire family. Slowly she becomes acquainted with her captor, and so do we. 

The Silence of the Girls is a novel that takes place between the lines of the Iliad. Pat Barker gives the nameless slave girls a voice, and they discuss things we haven’t had the pleasure of reading before: the sexual preferences of their masters, how some of these warriors still miss their wives, or, contrastingly, how others have fallen in love with their slaves and have fathered children with them. Some of these women return their love, but others, including our heroine Briseis, will never be able to love their masters.

The notion of property, or ownership is the central theme of Pat Barker’s retelling of the Iliad. Briseis is owned by Achilles, but later taken by Agamemnon, thus sparking the famous strife between these two men which  almost causes the downfall of the Greek army. One could then argue that Briseis is one of the most important characters in the entire story – but then again: it could have been any woman, any prize, and Briseis is reduced to being a mere status symbol. It’s Achilles’ sense of pride, the fact that his trophy was stolen from him, that really matters.

More interestingly, The Silence of the Girls also plays with ownership in a figurative sense. This can be seen quite clearly in the way the story is told. At first Briseis tells the story in a first-person narrative, but later on the focus lies on Achilles in a third-person point of view. The more the novel progresses, the less Briseis is allowed a voice, and the more Achilles’ story takes over. It shows that she no longer matters; she has been absorbed by Achilles. Briseis, then, doesn’t tell her own story, but Achilles’.

When I discussed this book with my boyfriend, he said he wasn’t really interested. For, he argued, this book adds nothing to the Iliad, because the main character can’t even convince herself that the story she tells is about her. I admitted he did have a point, but that this is actually what makes this such an interesting book. The Silence of the Girls isn’t about showing the audience that Briseis was an important character. Instead, by making even Briseis aware of her minor role in the story, she shows us that the Iliad was always about Achilles. This novel is a footnote, a testament to all those women who were mentioned in the Iliad simply because they were owned by the Greeks. At the very end of the novel, after Achilles has died, after Troy has fallen, and after she has become a free woman again, Briseis says the following words:  “I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story. I failed. Now, my own story can begin.” I’m glad to know she had a life after Achilles, even if nobody bothered writing it down.

Have you read this book? Have you ever wondered whether you were living your own story, or being part of someone else’s? Also: do you think it’s significant that my boyfriend thinks this book is kind of irrelevant, while I think it’s well worth a read? Let me know in the comments! Also, make sure to follow me for more book musings!

4 comments

  1. Quite interesting that so many hundreds of years after Homer’s death, his “writings” still inspire countless authors to add their view on the matter.

    Liked by 1 person

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