Perhaps unsurprisingly, my mother knows me very well. For my birthday this year, she sent me a book about the science inspiring Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. Which I had never heard of but is described as telling the story go The Iliad through the voices of Briseis and other women.
Spoilers, I guess, for the story of The Iliad. I mean it’s been 2500 years or so, but I guess not everyone knows who dies…
A version of The Iliad from Briseis’ POV is different from, for example, that told by Cassandra or Helen. I think this is a marvellous idea, since she’s right there at the heart of the quarrel that is itself the heart of the problems in this story. And the first part is largely what I was hoping for. It starts with Briseis being captured, along with other women, and there’s a marvellous moment where she looks at a slave woman who looks back, and Briseis knows she is thinking ‘now it’s your turn.’ And Briseis knows that’s fair, because she’s never given much thought to the slave women in her life, who themselves have been captured in war. She and the others get carted off to the Trojan beach, and she’s handed to Achilles, and she experiences the life of a slave woman. There are some remarkable moments where she reflects on being a thing, and how she finds it hard herself to think of herself as anything but a thing.
And then. Sigh.
After Briseis is taken from Achilles and given to Agamemnon suddenly we get these sections written from Achilles’ point of view. I’m confused and disappointed. I understand the need to examine that all-important turning point of the story, but why does it have to be through the words of the fellas who’ve always been the ones telling the story? The title of the novel itself starts to seem a bit of a mockery. Couldn’t Barker have inserted some other unnamed slave girl to tell the story that she watches going on in the tent, while cleaning up? Or couldn’t Briseis have heard patches of the story later – she does marry one of Achilles’ companions – and have that patchwork nature of the narrative be a feature? If the death of Hector could be told from inside the weaving room rather than being viewed then I don’t see why we had to be taken into the lives of Patroclus and Achilles and see it from their point of view. And the women find out about the death of Achilles from the wailing on the battlefield – it’s not like they have to view everything to know it! In fact couldn’t that be part of the exploration of the nature of being female, and a slave, in this context?
I think an exploration of masculinity through the lens of the Achilles/Patroclus friendship would be deeply interesting, told well, that is not the story for a book called The Silence of the Girls.
Another minor quibble is that this book is not sure what it thinks of the gods. I am reminded of the film Troy (which I quite liked, fight me): it only shows Thetis, and it hints at her connection to the sea but not her divinity, so it’s definitely a story about
humanity men. Here, though… the plague is probably because of Apollo but not definitely. There’s a line about Athens wrapping Achilles in her aegis but it’s unclear whether that’s meant to be read metaphorically. But Achilles is seen as the son of a goddess and Thetis is definitely one, having gone back to the sea when Achilles was a child (also it’s partly her fault he’s a bit of a psychopath), and she really does come out of the sea at Troy. So the gods are real but not especially involved? And there’s no comment from Briseis or others about whether the gods can be trusted or whether slaves just don’t get to call on deities and expect to be heard.
With the sections from Achilles’ perspective, the book verges on becoming just another retelling of the story rather than keeping its promise of exploring the consequences of war for women. It definitely does do some of that exploration, and more than half of it is from Briseis’ perspective (I estimate). But by shoving Achilles back into the story that he has always dominated – and not even to reflect on Briseis et al, which would have been startling and perhaps worthy – Barker undercuts her own apparent intentions of allowing the previously silent girls to speak.
While it’s beautiful work I am disappointed.