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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls (2018)

by Pat Barker

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Trust Pat Barker to bring ancient history into the 21st century. That's what she has done with this book. Ostensibly it is about the women taken captive by the Greeks as they were waging what we know as The Trojan War. When Homer wrote The Iliad the women in the story (unless they were divine) were treated as chattels. With this story we learn what the women, particularly Briseis who was Achilles' prize, felt.

Briseis went from being a queen in the Trojan city of Lyrnessus to being a slave and comfort girl to the great warrior Achilles. Achilles' best friend (and probable lover) Patroclus befriended Briseis because he knew himself what it was like to be an outsider. Achilles doesn't seem to care one way or another about Briseis but Achilles is angry when Agamennon demands her to take the place of Chryseis, his prize, when he has to return her to her father in order to stop the plague that is ravaging the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight and the Trojans almost win the war. Agamennon is abusive to Briseis and then ignores her. When Agamennon offers to return Briseis to Achilles if he will return to the fighting he asserts that he has not lain with her but Briseis conveys with a look to Achilles that this is not correct. So Achilles refuses the offer and stays out of the warfare. Then Patroclus offers to lead their troops into battle wearing Achilles' armor and Achilles agrees to that. When Patroclus is killed by the Trojan king's son, Hector, Achilles is distraught with grief. He goes back into battle himself and kills Hector, taking his body hostage. Agamennon makes good on his promise to return Briseis but Achilles hardly notices she is back. Achilles continually drags Hector's body around behind his chariot but each night Hector's dead body is restored to pristine condition. Finally Hector's father, Priam, makes his way alone to Achilles' compound and asks for his son's body. Achilles is touched by Priam's bravery and his pleas as a father and allows Priam to take the body. From then on Achilles seems to be better able to cope with the loss of Patroclus and he accepts Briseis into his bed again. Briseis realizes she is pregnant just before Achilles rides out to battle for the final time.

Seen through Briseis' eyes Achilles is something less than "Great Achilles, Brilliant Achilles etc." She says "we called him 'the butcher'". And that certainly comes through loud and clear. From the beginning of the book during the siege of Lyrnessus we see how bloodthirsty the Greeks were. No men were allowed to live; even pregnant women who might give birth to boys were killed. Women were raped, beaten, put to work and if they died, it didn't matter since there were other women to take their place. One of Breiseis' cousins jumped off a building rather than be taken hostage by the Greeks. Of course, the Trojans probably would have been just as bad if they had a chance. Perhaps Helen went willingly with Paris but she just as easily might have been captured and raped by him. No woman inside or outside of Troy had any real freedom. Briseis survived because she learned to efface herself with men. She was a survivor. ( )
  gypsysmom | Feb 17, 2019 |
Novelist Barker takes on a retelling of The Iliad from a woman’s point of view. Briseis was a queen when her city fell to the Greeks. She was awarded to Achilles as his war prize, becoming his concubine. From her position as a slave, Briseis describes life within the Greek war camp and the conversations she overhears as she serves at Achilles’ table and later listens to his conversations with Patroclus. While the men in both camps are focused on winning the war, Briseis wants to recover her identity as a person that was taken from her when she became a slave. The outcome of the war is never in doubt since Barker is faithful to the legend of the fall of Troy. Briseis finally realizes that she and the other Trojan women have not been silenced forever when she overhears a Trojan woman singing to her son by her Greek captor. “We’re going to survive—our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams—and in their worst nightmares, too. ( )
  cbl_tn | Feb 17, 2019 |
A wonderful novel, beautifully written and hard to put down. Pat Barker's novel tells the story of the Iliad through a woman's eyes -- Briseis, the enslaved girl whom Achilles was forced to turn over to Agamemnon, triggering Achilles' rage. The story may be ancient, but in this telling it pulls the reader compulsively forward. The language is simple and almost contemporary, but vivid and hard-hitting, achieving the power of poetry without being overtly poetic. This is the first novel by Barker that I have read: it certainly won't be the last. ( )
  annbury | Jan 12, 2019 |
Earlier this year, I read Circe by Madeline Miller which gives voice to one of the lesser-known women in Greek mythology. I really enjoyed it so decided to read The Silence of the Girls which is a retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of a woman.

Briseis is the queen of Lyrnessus, a city allied to Troy, when it is captured by the Greeks led by Achilles. All the men of the city are killed, but the women are taken as slaves and brought to the Greek camp outside of Troy. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a prize but, in essence, she becomes his “bed-girl”. Later she becomes central to an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon.

Winston Churchill said that history is written by the victors and this sentiment is echoed in the novel: “The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.” The novel opens with Briseis mocking the way Achilles is always described as a hero because he is not so regarded by her and the other slaves: “Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.” Later, Briseis describes Achilles as “Blood, shit and brains – and there he is, the son of Peleus, half beast, half god, driving on to glory.”

History has also usually been written from the point of view of men. Women often are heard only as a chorus wailing in grief. One of the slave women in the novel says, “’I’m supposed to just put up with it and say nothing, and if I do try to talk about it, it’s: “Silence becomes a woman.”’” For women like Briseis, “Nothing mattered now except youth, beauty and fertility.” When Achilles insists that Agamemnon return the daughter of one of Apollo’s priests in order to appease the god, Agamemnon demands Briseis be given to him. Though it is her fate being discussed, she has no voice: “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.” Later, Briseis is seen as the cause of the disagreement between the two men: “I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight.” Just as Briseis once removes a woman’s gag, the author is trying to give voice to women silenced by power and history.

The book suggests that though the death of men in war is undoubtedly tragic, the fate of surviving women is worse. All the women of Lyrnessus become slaves and “A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.” Achilles has “no sense of [Briseis] as a person distinct from himself.” Briseis wants to be seen as “A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over.” There is a scene that emphasizes the situation in which Briseis and the other women find themselves. King Priam begs Achilles for the body of his son Hector by saying, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” But Briseis comments, “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 fate of another woman is outlined in equally graphic terms: “Her only child dead, and tonight she was expected to spread her legs for her new owner, a pimply adolescent boy, the son of the man who’d killed her husband.”

The characterization of Achilles is interesting. Though Briseis calls him a butcher in her first words, he is shown to be a very complex character. There is no doubt of his brutality, but another side of him is seen in his treatment of King Priam and his relationship with Patroclus. He was abandoned by his mother and it is clear he suffers still from that childhood trauma. At times, the reader will despise Achilles and be horrified by his actions yet at other times will admire him and weep with him.

In an interview (https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/pat-barker-on-giving-voice-to-the-ens...), the author stated that she intentionally inserted anachronisms into the novel in order to encourage the reader to see that what is described in the novel is true to the present. At the end, Briseis wonders, “What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.”

I could only think of Nadia Murad who was one of about 3,000 Yazidi women kidnapped and sold into sex slavery by ISIS. She and Dr. Denis Mukwege, a Congolese surgeon who treats victims of rape, received the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. The Norwegian Nobel Committee commented on Murad’s bravery in refusing to remain silent.

The novel is sometimes difficult to read because some of its descriptions are graphic, but I think it is a must-read for everyone. It provides a perspective other than that offered by male-dominated historical narratives. And though it retells an ancient story, it is as relevant as today’s news.

Note: Please check out my reader's blog (https://schatjesshelves.blogspot.com/) and follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski.) ( )
  Schatje | Dec 27, 2018 |
I loved this book. Super quick read and perfect for a weekend read. This book is about the Greek warrior Achilles and his "prize" Briseis. It tells the end of the Trojan war and the fall of Troy. Great read. ( )
  Bethgarvinloflin1 | Dec 18, 2018 |
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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after taking the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon, the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

—The Human Stain, Philip Roth”
For my children, John and Anna; and, as always,

in loving memory of David
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Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him “the butcher.”
It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they'd have Helen's eyes. Or if they fastened their cinctures the same way she did hers, they'd have Helen's breasts. All this mindless imitation of a woman they affected to despise...No wonder she laughed at them.
Poor Mynes. His idea of female beauty was a woman so fat if you slapped her backside in the morning she'd still be jiggling when you got back home for dinner.
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