I adore The Iliad. It is one of my favourite pieces of literature and holds a truly special place in my heart. In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker re-tells this myth from the female perspective of Briseis, instead of focusing on the male characters’ stories. The character of Briseis has interested me for a long time, so I knew I wanted to read it at some point. Listening to Jean Menzies’ podcast episode with Pat Barker where they discussed the book (listen here: https://soundcloud.com/user-591915376/women-in-wartime) was the final convincing factor, so I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas gift from my parents.
Re-telling classical myths with a focus on female stories is a trend that I am all too pleased to see taking place. I hope that it continues. In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis is married to King Mynes of Lyrnessus. When their city is sacked by Achilles’ during the war, she is captured and becomes enslaved to Achilles. His war prize. Having lost everything, we follow Briseis as she learns to live in her new reality. We see her grief and her strength and are reminded that the stories of women are just as important as the stories of men.
When we speak about ancient war myths, the voices of women have been forgotten far too often. It is easy to forget about the female stories, as the original myths also rarely dwell on them. The Iliad barely focuses on Briseis and the trauma that she experiences at the hands of Achilles and his Myrmidons. Re-tellings like this are important, as they help to re-frame those stories that we think we know and they expand our concept of the ancient world.
Barker does not shy away from the brutality of war and what it means to be a woman who was captured and enslaved. It is brutal and explicit without ever feeling voyeuristic. There are women who commit suicide rather than be captured. There are women who are raped and beaten and abused. Barker also captures the filth and squalor of the Greek camps. They are cramped and rancid, filled with rot and rats. Many adaptations end up glorifying the experience of war (such as the 2004 film, Troy*), but whilst reading The Silence of the Girls you can only see the horrific reality.
The harsh truth of what women suffered is perhaps best demonstrated by the following quote:
I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.
Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.
The main criticism of this book seems to be that about halfway through the perspective of Achilles is introduced. I understand this criticism and if I had not been aware of it I may have had a similar reaction. I had read several reviews that discuss this though, so I was prepared and found that there was less of Achilles’ perspective than I was expecting. Therefore I did not find this so jarring. The difficulty with re-telling The Iliad, is that you have to attempt to explain Achilles’ reaction to the death of Patroclus or the plot simply doesn’t make sense. As Briseis is not privy to much of this plot, it presents an issue. However, there were some scenes that I wish had been told from Briseis’ point of view and that I think would have benefited from being told that way. I wish that Barker had done so. Ultimately, I can understand why some chapters were focused on Achilles, but I appreciate why others do not feel this way.
One of the positives of having some parts of this book focusing on Achilles, was the bitter reminder that whilst Briseis is important and her story needs to be told, she was not seen this way by the men around her. Achilles barely sees her as a human, she is simply a prize that he deserves. Barker reminds us that whilst she is shining a light on women’s voices in this book, they were very much silent to the men in these tales.
I adored this adaptation and it’s become a catalyst for me to want to read more books about the Trojan War. I’ve just finished Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and think I’ll re-read The Iliad at some point this year. I’ve also picked up A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes from the library. This book captivated me and gave me the opposite of a book hangover. It has spurred on my reading and I am delighted to have read it.
*I must state here that I adore Troy. It’s problematic and veers so far from the story of The Iliad that it’s almost laughable to call it an adaptation. But I adore it nonetheless.