On my recent flight to Amsterdam I had intended to read another novel altogether. But I left that book in my suitcase by mistake, and it travelled in the aeroplane hold. So I found myself in the airport departures lounge with nothing to read. This was a small provincial airport with a limited branch of WH Smith. The Silence of the Girls was the only book there that I had any interest in. It turned out to be ideal material for the short flight, and perfect bedtime reading for the next three nights. Amsterdam was as lovely as ever.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
The story of the final days of the Trojan wars is told by Briseis, a young Trojan woman whose city is sacked. She had been married to a king but when the Greeks defeat the city and her husband is killed she becomes Achilles’s prize.
Briseis is beautiful, and she becomes the bed-slave of the heroic fighter. Although she has become a slave she is aware of the politics of the Greek camp, the squabbling between the various kings, those considered to have prowess on the field of battle, and those who are ridiculed for staying behind the lines.
Achilles and Agamemnon develop a feud when plague breaks out in the camp. Both men are proud and find it hard to deal with each other. In order to end the plague Agamemnon must give up his slave girl, but in return he demands to be awarded Briseis. And so she is turned over to another camp, but the feud is not ended. Achilles refuses to fight.
Eventually Achilles allows his great friend Patroclus to lead his men in his place and wearing his armour, and when he is killed Achilles swears to avenge him with Hector’s blood. And when he slays Hector the war begins to come to an end. Many men are dead, the Greeks prepare to return home after ten years of war. For the women nothing is over. They must accompany their new owners, accept their new status, and continue to be treated as the spoils of war.
Feminism in The Silence of the Girls
Women’s voices, like those of the defeated, are rarely heard in history. When you are women and defeated you can only expect silence. Pat Barker has taken this situation and turned it on its head.
But she found that although most of the novel is narrated by Briseis and is the story of the women in the Greek camp, from about half way through to tell Achilles’s story she presents several sections in the third person. And in the second half of the novel it does seem that it is Achilles’s story. And for Briseis it has to be as her life and her future depend on his decisions and his actions. That he sees her as more of a person as his death approaches does not change that reality.
We do read a great deal about the lives of the women, first as they wait for their city to fall to the Greeks and then in the camp of their captors. There is rape, weaving (so much weaving), food preparation and serving, pregnancy, nursing the sick and wounded and even some bonds of affection emerge. The description of such women’s activities is not included in Homer’s Iliad, nor in Euripides’s The Trojan Women.
I wish the title had been different, The Silence of the Trojan Women, or even The Silence of the Women. The word ‘girl’ has been overused in titles recently. And although there are girls in this story, and awful things happen to them, mostly the story is concerned with the adults, who are women.
The story of the Trojan War is a compelling one. It lasted so long, it seemed to have such a romantic origin (Paris and Helen’s love), many Greek and Trojan heroes fought in it, and even the gods intervened. Pat Barker tells a good story in a very readable way.
Short-listed for the Women’s Fiction Prize 2019. The winner will be announced on 5thJune.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018) Penguin 325pp