The Iliad tells the story of the Greek hero Achilles’ anger after Briseis, a woman he’s taken captive as his ‘prize’ after sacking her city, is taken away from him by Agamemnon, and the disasters that strike the Greek army after Achilles withdraws from the fighting over this slight. Briseis herself doesn’t feature much in the poem; she’s only mentioned ten times, and only speaks once, to mourn the death of Patroclus, who, she says, was kind to her after her capture by Achilles (19.282ff). Pat Barker‘s The Silence of the Girls (2018) gives us Briseis’ version of the Iliad: the story of the war told from the point of view of one of the many women who lose their homes, families, and freedom at the hands of the Homeric ‘heroes’. It’s a wonderful novel, beautifully written in mostly very simple language that manages to shift seamlessly in and out of near-translations or Homeric references when recounting key moments from the poem: Barker uses this to particularly strong effect when she recreates a Homeric battle-scene — a long list of men suffering gruesome deaths interspersed with small details about their lives or their final moments — then subverts it by giving the alternative version of their story: the one told by their female relatives after their death to their fellow-slaves. I’m always interested to see how people writing retellings of classical literature deal with the gods and their constant interventions in the action, and Barker has an interesting way of dealing with this: while none of the characters ever questions the gods’ existence or their interference – it’s simply a fact that the plague which strikes the Greek army was sent by Apollo, for instance – the only character who actually interacts with them is the ‘godlike’ Achilles: when he speaks to his divine mother Thetis, Briseis can’t understand the words he uses, and on the single instance when she actually appears, everyone else present turns away, unable to witness her meeting with her son. It’s a simple but highly effective way of conveying the complete reality of the gods while also putting the narration on a less heroic, more human level. In the Iliad, the audience sees and hears gods just as the heroes do; in The Silence of the Girls, we can only see as much as the non-heroes can.
For me, the first half of the novel, which is narrated wholly by Briseis, is the stronger part in conveying the brutality of the sack of her city and the enslavement of her and the other women – who, in an unforgettable image, are led out of the city ‘slipping and slithering along alleys cobbled with our brothers’. Once Briseis is taken by Agamemnon, the narrative splits between her viewpoint and Achilles’, and later Patroclus’ too. Presumably this is to allow the story to follow the key events of the Iliad as well as Briseis’ experiences, but Achilles’ viewpoint never seems as strongly characterised, and to be honest, we’ve already got that in the Iliad – it’s really Briseis’ narration that makes the novel, for me. The ending also feels rather rushed compared to the pace of the rest of the book, checking off one horrific event from the last days of Troy after another – although maybe that’s the point, since it’s taken pretty directly from Euripides’ Trojan Women, which is itself essentially a series of scenes focusing on the sufferings of the women of Troy after the city’s fall. I won’t spoil the ending of Briseis’ own story – the only part that’s really spoiler-able – but I wasn’t entirely convinced about how well it fitted with her character as it had been established in the earlier parts of the book. Overall, though, The Silence of the Girls is definitely now on the list of my favourite modern classical retellings – highly recommended, for classicists and non-classicists alike!