I bought Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls when I was holidaying in Bangkok last month. After reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, I was told by many that Silence is a natural next read for me, and I can see why. Circe is a feminist retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of it’s chief “villainess” (in the vein of Disney’s Maleficent), and The Silence of the Girls is a feminist retelling of The Iliad from the point of view of a woman captured and enslaved by the invading Greeks. They do, however, differ in that Miller’s Circe ended up being actually Circe’s story, while Barker’s Briseis remained very much trapped in Achilles’, something even referenced in the book itself.
On a meta-level, The Silence of the Girls made me realise one thing: that the plot ultimately does not matter, only how it is told. After all, I am very familiar with The Iliad. I have known it since high school when I read an abridged retelling of the Homeric epic in a book borrowed from my school library. I watched the 2004 film Troy. I read Miller’s The Song of Achilles. All of these have the same plot, but yet felt like very different stories, and The Silence of the Girl too felt fresh to me, even though I have been experiencing the identical exploits of Achilles, Patroclus, Hector, et al for decades now. It is a testament to the importance of representation in fiction; why having perspectives outside of the straight, white and male matters. The same events seen through different eyes yield vastly different contexts, feelings and lessons.Take this scene, for example, of Priam pleading with Achilles for the body of his slain son, Hector (a scene that was played by Peter O’Toole in 2004 to perfection, in what I consider the best scene of the film). Pat Barker shone a completely different light on it:
I could still hear him pleading with Achilles, begging him to remember his own father—and then the silence, as he bent his head and kissed Achilles’ hands.
”I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.”
Those words echoes 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.”
While The Song of Achilles is ultimately a romance, The Silence of the Girl is a commentary on war, slavery, and gender. That scene is very powerfully rendered by Barker to deliver the incisive message that we, as a society, have a longer memory of one man’s indignity than we do of countless women’s abasement. Because in some way, in our collective unconscious, history had not recognised women as being fully human for most of its run. Also, as exemplified in the quote, Barker often drew parallels between Briseis and inanimate objects, and framed her as part of Achilles’ belongings, his “plunder”.
We often hear tell of the Trojan War being launched as the price of Helen’s beauty; that all Greek nations went to war for the sake of a woman when in fact, it is more an expedition to avenge the hurt pride of a cuckold. This is narrated microcosmically with the story of Briseis who was painted as the object, the “thing” that caused Achilles and Agamemnon to quarrel, making her the focus of hatred by the Greeks as if they were wronged by her instead of her by them. Women were often proverbially designated as the ruin of men both in literature and in history and were unjustly blamed for the follies and crimes of men, and The Silence of the Girls sought to dispel that notion (and to much success, in my opinion). Even today, we hear people defend rapists by claiming that the victims must have “led them on”, or behaved in ways that incriminated them in their own abuse and victimisation.
I really liked what The Silence of the Girls have to say, though to say I enjoyed it would be wrong. This is a not an easy read. Barker did not shy away from describing the horrors of war and the toll it takes on the vanquished. There are multiple scenes in which Briseis, our narrator, was raped and debased. While I liked Miller’s The Song of Achilles, I always felt this nagging feeling that a huge part of the tale is missing, and The Silence of the Girls completes it. It is not a part we want to read, but we should.