The Silence of the Girls
By: Pat Barker
“None of that gives him the right to take another man’s prize of honor. It doesn’t belong to him; he hasn’t earned it.”
There was a lot more, but I’d stopped listening. Honor, courage, loyalty, reputation- all those big words being bandied about- but for me there was only one word, one very small word: it. It doesn’t belong to him, he hasn’t earned it.”
It is our narrator Briseis. Actual person. Not it.
Barker tells the story of the fall of Troy through her point of view. She was a Queen in one of Troy’s neighboring cities until Achilles attacks and destroys it. After she becomes Achilles bed slave, slave period, one of the many thousands of women in the camp. Almost a lucky one since she is young and beautiful.
For those women not thought a prize it’s begging for scraps and sleeping with the rats.
Even for some of the beautiful women Agamemnon (who is an asshole in every Troy story no matter whose telling it) tends to give his prizes to be shared around the men when he’s done with them. Briseis is smart. She’s a survivor. A fantastic narrator for this story and Barker’s writing is so good.
She really puts you there in the battles and in the camp. We see some women fall in love with their captors. We see others walk bravely to sacrifice but all with the knowledge that the Greeks don’t see them as people (let’s be honest they didn’t have good reputations with women who weren’t slaves.) It’s a maddening read in many places.
The deep acceptance of it- even by the women. They didn’t commit suicide in droves when the cities fell solely because of grief but because they knew beyond a doubt what awaited them as well.
Pat Barker also keeps this pretty grounded. No horse. Although Achilles mother does appear. And we get bits of Helen- not a popular woman on either side. The Greeks want her dead. The Trojans mostly want her dead and she’s not the nicest person either. But Helen also knows that despite this all being for her- it’s not the least bit about her. It’s pretty much implied by Briseis that the only way Helen will keep her life is if she can work her way back into her husbands bed.
The only tiny issue I had with The Silence of the Girls was how much time we wind up spending with Achilles. (I wanted more Briseis or another woman narrator perhaps.) However Barker does a good job of making him human. Fallible and kind of sort not that bad. Patroclus is given a good spot a kind man who eventually can make Achilles do the right thing.
Barker also does a wonderful job of not romanticizing (any of it really) the relationship between Achilles and Briseis. She also keeps in mind that despite everything the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles also suffered a power imbalance.
Briseis knows her history to. She knows that the women won’t matter when the stories are told. But from this point of view and dealing with this hard to read subject matter its one of the most powerful Troy stories I’ve read. I hope to read more from Pat Barker in the future.