When the Greek Queen Helen is kidnapped by Trojans, the Greeks sail in pursuit, besieging the city of Troy. Trapped in the Greek soldiers’ camp is another captured queen, Briseis. Condemned to be bed-slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her family, she becomes a pawn in a menacing game between bored and frustrated warriors. In the centuries after this most famous war, history will write her off, a footnote in a bloody story scripted by vengeful men – but Briseis has a very different tale to tell . . .
Silence of the Girls is billed as a feminist retelling of the Iliad, by Booker prize-winning British author, Pat Barker. Written from the perspective of Briseis, it chronicles events during the final year of the Trojan War as experienced by those usually treated as plot points, not people. Briseis is the “prize” that Achilles and Agamemnon fight over, triggering many of the events in Homer’s epic, and this is now her story to tell.
The Silence of the Girls is a book with a message. “Silence becomes a woman,” Briseis remembers always being told, as her story unfolds. Women must simply suffer and accept, and their only way to resist is choosing to die. The novel offers some hard-hitting writing, and it presents some real narrative punches about the Iliad and its focus on men and male heroes.
But I’m not certain if the novel offers enough more, beyond this concept of the “overlooked point of view.” The entire point of the story is Briseis’s powerlessness, and what she does to try and counteract that, but the narrative itself doesn’t seem to have complete faith in her as a chronicler or a protagonist. The Silence of the Girls makes up for Briseis’ lack of agency by dipping into Achilles’ or Patroclus’s perspectives, and I would estimate that about a third of the novel in total is written from their point of view. All the action and choice came from them, so it’s an appealing idea to see their perspective on things, but the entire concept of the book is that it’s from the perspective of the agentless. When a good third of the story comes from this typical, well-trod perspective on the Iliad — not just a male perspective, but the most powerful, forceful male perspective in the story — it somewhat undermines the very purpose of the novel. It suggests that the author could not make Briseis’s perspective enough, and had to supplement it with the men who usually get the spotlight.
Musing on this now, I wonder if that is part of the point of the novel — we start with Briseis’ perspective, but she gets crowded out, more and more, by the forceful men who actually get to decide on the story. But that’s quite an abstract and generous interpretation of a book that promises to be from a female perspective, and then increasingly tells the familiar male one instead.
Despite being written by a Booker prize winning author, I have to admit I also found the writing clumsy at times. Although some of it is beautifully written, there are some really clunky lines too, and details like the protagonist referring to “god” felt strange, considering that she believed in not one but many. After I finished the book, I was convinced it was a debut, full of inspiration and promise but not the best the writer would have to offer, so it was odd to find out that she’s actually a prize-winning novelist with decades of publishing behind her.
The Silence of the Girls is a good book, but I can’t help feeling that it could have been so much more. It’s highly readable, and certainly thought-provoking, but ultimately, it doesn’t fully achieve what it sets out to do — tell the story of the Iliad from a female perspective.