The Greek epics seem to have had a resurgence – dare one say a renaissance? – or a reimagining recently. On my to-be-read list are Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Heroes, Madeline Miller’s Circe, and Song of Achilles and now this by Pat Barker. I don’t know what the appeal is of these narratives, nor why they are gaining appeal now… if there even is a reason for these things? Is it a response to the banality and mundanity of the world we live in that we seek out heroes – Agamemnon, Odysseus, Nestor, Achilles, Patroclus? Does the world we live in offer none of its own? Or perhaps, in a post-truth world, we are casting a more critical look at these towering epics of fake news, re-evaluating the world they present.
After all, history (and mythology) are both written by the victors, and those victors are generally male leaders and male armies.
The Silence of the Girls is a re-telling on one of the most iconic stories in Western literature: the Trojan War. Specifically, the fall of Lyrnessus and capture of Briseis, its queen, by the Greek army; her being awarded to Achilles as a war prize and subject of the subsequent dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles, leading to Achilles’ disastrous withdrawal from the Greek war effort. The novel takes us through the familiar litany of deaths: Patroclus’ death at the hands of Hector; Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles; Achilles’ own death, succumbing to Paris’ poisoned arrow.
The plot, therefore, contains nothing new: it can only end in the way that most of the Western world will expect.
What Barker does, however, is shift the narrative voice and therefore perspective onto Briseis rather than Achilles or Agamemnon. And Briseis who is – from what I recall of The Iliad – essentially a silent character and little more than a name, an item to be fought over, becomes an utterly convincing narrator. Reaching for adjectives to describe her voice and narration, I reached for the somewhat cliched incandescent, but that’s not quite right. She doesn’t have that flare and heat for incandescence. She is instead utterly authentic and luminous.
And what she suffered was horrific: to be enslaved as a concubine to the man who sacked her city and – in this iteration at least – personally slew her family. As Briseis puts it, when witnessing Priam kissing the hands of Achilles following Hector’s death, claiming
I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.
Those words echoed 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.
And Briseis’ life in the Greek camp is brutal. She is paraded as a sign of Greek power and of Achilles’ power amongst the Greeks, used as a concubine by Achilles and later Agamemnon with whom she feels the constant fear of being abandoned to the common soldiers. Let’s not shy away from the word: she is raped by Achilles on a nightly basis. That word, however, is not used by Barker who merely says that
What can I say? He wasn’t cruel. I waited for it—expected it, even—but there was nothing like that, and at least it was soon over. He fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing. Something in me died that night.
And yet, from this, she finds the strength to make new friends and alliances among the women, to care, to do more than survive. Her grief, anger and outrage never leave her, but she comes to … an accommodation with them, perhaps, supported by new roles in the hospital tents, genuine tenderness for Patroclus, and a complicated relationship with Achilles.
It seems odd to say this of a character recorded by Homer in the region of 3,000 years ago, but the break-out character in the novel really was Achilles. The hero – indomitable, destructive, violent, passionate – was never lost in the novel, but laid over that was the man, vulnerable and childlike, having never recovered from his abandonment by his mother, the Nereid Thetis, essentially a sea Goddess. Consider the moment, for example, in which following the first night together, Briseis comes across Achilles at the beach:
Somebody, something, was churning up the water beyond the breaking waves. An animal—it had to be, couldn’t be anything else, a dolphin or a killer whale. They sometimes come in very close to land, even beaching themselves to snatch a seal pup from the rocks. But then the drifting veils of mist momentarily parted and I saw human arms and shoulders, the gleam of moonlight on wet skin. More heaving, more splashing—and then, abruptly, silence, as he turned and lay facedown on the water, drifting backwards and forwards with the tide.
Men on this coast don’t learn to swim. They’re sailors—they know swimming serves only to prolong a death that might otherwise be quick and relatively merciful. But this man had been playing with the sea like a dolphin or a porpoise, as if it were his real home. And now he lay spread-eagled on the surface, staying in that position for such a long time I began to think he could breathe water. But then, suddenly, he raised his head and shoulders and floated upright, like a bottling seal. Seeing his face came as a shock, though it shouldn’t have done, because I’d guessed already who it was…
When he spoke I thought he was speaking to me and I opened my mouth, though I’d no idea what I was going to say. But then he spoke again, words bubbling from his mouth like the last breath of a drowning man. I understood none of it. He seemed to be arguing with the sea, arguing or pleading…The only word I thought I understood was “Mummy” and that made no sense at all. Mummy? No, that couldn’t be right. But then he said it again: “Mummy, Mummy,” like a small child crying to be picked up. It had to mean something else, but then “Mummy” is the same, or nearly the same, in so many different languages. Whatever it meant, I knew I shouldn’t be hearing it, but I didn’t move and so I crouched down and waited for it to stop. On and on it went, until at last the glutinous speech faded into silence.
There is something wonderfully evocative about the setting here, on the beaches before Troy where the boundaries between land and sea, earth and water, human and divine, male and female, friend and foe, ally and enemy are perhaps a little more fluid and flexible than elsewhere. It is a world where the Goddess Thetis can emerge from the river into a realistically crafted human war camp with latrines and rats and plague and injuries.
By the end of the novel – and this is a remarkable achievement – I felt I knew Achilles where I had not known him before. And cared about him and Patroclus and Briseis and their fates.
Returning to the somewhat tongue-in-cheek comments about false news at the opening of this review, it is something which Barker, I think, genuinely does address. She undermines the mythologising in Homer, whilst still having Thetis walking through the pages of her own novel, which is a wonderful feat, as clearly in this extract from the moment of Patroclus’ death as anywhere.
On the battlefield, the Greeks fighting to save Patroclus’s corpse recognize the cry and turn towards it. What do they see? A tall man standing on a parapet with the golden light of early evening catching his hair? No, of course they don’t. They see the goddess Athena wrap her glittering aegis round his shoulders; they see flames thirty feet high springing from the top of his head. What the Trojans saw isn’t recorded. The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them
Perspectives. Briseis’ perspective, from behind the Greek line. The Greek soldiers’ perspective desperate for hope and affirmation. The lost Trojan perspective. No lies, no deceit, just humanity.
This was a book full of humanity.
Barker has Briseis state, after the fall of Troy and the capture and enslavement of women she had known in freedom, that
As I looked at her, I heard again, as I’d been hearing for months, the last notes of Achilles’s lament. The words seemed to have got trapped inside my brain, an infestation rather than a song, and I resented it. Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy—I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments—but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.
I just wonder whether there can ever be enough songs to solidify any moment in its complex and twisting fullness.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Date: August 2018