"From the Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy comes a monumental new masterpiece, set in the midst of literature's most famous war. Pat Barker turns her attention to the timeless legend of The Iliad, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War. The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman--Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war's outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy's neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece's greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles's concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army. When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis's people, but also of the ancient world at large. Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war--the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead--all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives--and it is nothing short of magnificent"--"The Iliad, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War"--
Many novels have been written about the Trojan War, but Barker finds a new way in through the point of view of Briseis, once a queen and a childhood friend of the infamous Helen, now a concubine struggling to make the best of things. The heroics of war take on a new dimension within the confines of the Greek camp where the captive women are assigned to the victors--until they tire of them and are loosed to the general troops. Those too old or unattractive for bed-play are resigned to work in the laundry, charnal house, or hospital, and all of the women take their turns working the looms. Only 19, Briseis tries her best to submit to Achilles's will and is sustained by the unexpected friendship of his companion, Patroclus--at least until Appollo's wrath hits the camp in the form of a plague, and Briseis herself becomes a pawn in both the attempt to pacify the angry god and in the infamous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon,.
No one examines the effects of war quite like Pat Barker. Regeneration, the first in her World War I trilogy, focuses on the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who was found "mentally unsound" in a court martial after publishing a letter denouncing the war and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where, under the care of psychiatist Dr. William Rivers, he was supposed to regain his senses and return to the trenches. (The next two books, eye in the Door and The Ghost Road follow the war through the experiences of Rivers and another patient, Billy Prior.) A second trilogy, Life Class, follows students whose studies at the Slade School of Art are interrupted by World War I; some enlist, others take on sacrifices and supportive tasks at home, including Elinor Brooke, who assists a renowned plastic surgeon in reconstructing the faces of wounded men. (Toby's Room recounts the effect of the death on battlefield of Elinor's brother, and in Noonday, she and her family endure the London Blitz and its aftermath.) Now, in The Silence of the Girls, Barker takes her perceptive imagination to ancient Troy and into the hearts and mind of the least culpable and weakest of the defeated, the captive women. Again, she examines in depth the effects of war, not only on the women but also on the warriors, who become increasingly dehumanized. Like Briseis, she can empathize with them while nonetheless condemning their actions. This is a powerful, brutal book, haunting and beautifully written, a true modern counterpart to The Illiad that resonates in today's world.
I read the Regeneration trilogy a long time ago, but I think Barker manages the same thing here, the pity of war.
Of course, I knew of The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed (according to legend) by the blind minstrel Homer, and standing at the fountainhead of Western literature. It came as quite a surprise, however, when I finally came to read The Iliad to discover that it didn’t relate the whole ten years of the Trojan War, and all the ins and outs of that dreadful conflict. It is, instead, restricted to a period of about eight weeks, towards the end of the war (although, of course, the protagonists did not know that), and focuses primarily on the bitter dispute between Achilles, unrivalled hero of the Greeks, and Agamemnon, overall leader of the Greek forces and brother of Menelaus, from whom Paris had abducted Helen.
That dispute hinged round two young noble women (Briseis and Chryseis) whom the Greeks seized from one of the cities near Troy that they had sacked. Briseis, was given to Achilles, while Chryseis was delivered to Agamemnon. Chryseis was the daughter of a senior priest of Apollo, and her father came to plead with Agamemnon for her release, offering a large ransom in return. Agamemnon, notable for his pride, anger and utter lack of wisdom or humanity, scorned Chryseis’s father, sending him away empty handed. The priest scurries away, praying to Apollo, whom he addresses by various titles, including the apparently innocuous title ‘Lord of Mice’. Seeing his priest treated with such disdain, Apollo vents his rage. We quickly learn that the epithet, ‘Lord of Mice’ refers to his ability to send plague, which was spread throughout the ancient world by rodents. The Greek camp is soon overrun with a virulent plague, which renders far worse casualties than the Trojans had achieved. After consulting various oracles, the wiser Greek leaders persuade Agamemnon to send Chryseis back to her father, and offer huge sacrifices to appease Apollo. He grudgingly does so, but then insists upon seizing Briseis from Achilles to replace her. This so angers Achilles that (‘sulking in his tent’) he withdraws his men from the campaign. Without the ferocious Achilles and his loyal Myrmidons, the Greeks falter on the battlefield, and lose much of the ground they had so painstakingly won over the previous nine years.
Pat Barker’s book revisits this ancient story from the women’s perspective. It is told mainly by Briseis, a young woman who had been a princess in her own realm (a city state that fell within the overall domain of Troy). She is captured when her city was sacked by the Greeks, and dragged back to their camp. Terrified, and unsure whether she will even survive the first night, she finds herself given to Achilles. In the Roger Lancelyn Green version that I read as a boy, it was merely stated that she was passed to him as a maidservant. Barker shuns any such euphemism, and makes it abundantly clear that Briseis’s future will be as a sexual plaything of Achilles, on call whenever required.
Briseis is a great character. Caught in a dreadful predicament, she remains strong and resourceful, emerging with far more dignity than her cruel and petulant captors. Achilles is more sympathetically drawn than Agamemnon, who is boundlessly cruel, petty and essentially weak, but still shows no ability to see Briseis as a person rather than just an object to gratify his demands. The only Greek male who displays any sort of humanity is Patroclus, Achilles’s lifelong companion and friend.
Where Barker excels is in taking a story with which her readers are already familiar, and successfully reversing the perspective while retaining all the immediacy and draw of the plot. Anyone familiar with the story of Troy knows what is about to happen, and how the different fates of Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, and Troy itself will play out. Despite that, the reader is hooked immediately, and drawn in to Briseis’s story. The book races along, driven by Barker’s clear prose.
It is easy to see why this book, offering a wholly new interpretation on what is literally the oldest tale in western literature was nominated for so many awards. It is a dazzling success.
Quote: "Free people never understand. A slave isn't a person who's treated as a thing. A slave IS a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else's."
I don't know if it was a marketing mistake or not, but for some reason the audiobook download edition of The Silence of the Girls was released in North America almost a full two months before its scheduled print release of October 23, 2018. I intend to read the print edition as well but here are some early thoughts based on the audiobook.
I really don't like this title, but the most appropriate title, "The Trojan Women", was already taken by Euripedes, so I can see that Pat Barker would have to compromise with a best alternative. Choosing something that evokes Thomas Harris's Hannibal Lector book & film series doesn't ring very well though.
The book is told primarily in the voice of Brisēís, queen of a Trojan-ally city that is conquered by the Greeks in their (then) 9-year ongoing campaign against Troy. She becomes the enslaved servant of the primary Greek warrior Achilles and is then directly or indirectly the cause of much of the plot elements of Homer's "The Iliad". She is here then witness to the events that unfold according to most of Homer's plot but with extensive background and expanded elements added. The narration by Kristin Atherton in this role is excellent.
There are several interludes where the thoughts and activities of Achilles and his childhood companion/fellow warrior Patroclus are not directly witnessed by Brisēís and are thus narrated in a male voice by Michael Fox (Note: this is not the TV actor Michael J. Fox). The change was jarring at first but the performance itself was totally well-done.
The one anachronistic element that struck me as odd was the appropriation of the (Australian?) bawdy song "Why was She Born so Beautiful?" as an Ancient Greek soldier song. It is repeated in variations several times so you can eventually accept it as a timeless expression of repressed male urges and frustrations. But it is certainly jarring at first.
Counter to its title, The Silence of the Girls gives eloquent voice to Brisēís and many of the other Trojan women whose roles in the Iliad were silent. The concluding chapters from Priam's expedition to Achilles camp onwards were as great as anything Homer-related that I have ever* read. I very much look forward to the print edition in the near future.
*I am a confessed Iliad nut, in that I have read Robert Fagles' "The Iliad", Stephen Mitchell's "The Iliad", Madeline Miller's "The Song of Achilles", Rosemary Sutcliff's "Black Ships Before Troy" and Alberto Manguel's "Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography" in recent years. So all of the above is not exactly unbiased.
The novel was told in first person, interspersed with sections of action involving Achilles and the war. It was very readable, although not "put-downable." I didn't like the slight mixture of some modern idioms or slang terms; I remember even one OK. I thought the title bland and fit only for a potboiler; this novel was several notches above that.
So a beautiful telling of an ancient story woven expertly into The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. However if we delve deeper this is more a novel about the women of those ancient times and how they were (mis) treated sold to the highest bidder to be abused, raped, discarded when their bodies and not their minds were of no further use. The narrator is Briseis who herself becomes involved in a love triangle/struggle between Agamemmon and Achilles. Through her eyes Barker strips away the hero qualities that have often been laid at the feet of Achilles and shows him for what she believes he is an intolerant butchering brute...."I'd been afraid ever since the cities of the Trojan plain started falling to Achilles; every burning, every sacking brought the war closer. But my fear that night was of an altogether different order, more sharply focused than it had ever been before. I knew my presence in the compound no longer reflected well on Amamemmon. Rather the opposite, in fact I was a constant reminder of the quarrel that had brought the Greek army to the brink of defeat. My only potential use, my only value to him- since he certainly didn't want me in his bed- had been as a possible bargaining chip in future negotiations with Achilles...."...."Achilles kept his word, everyone he promised Patroclus he did. He cut the throats of twelve Trojan youths, dragging their heads back by the hair and pulling his knife across their throats as quickly and cleanly as if they'd been goats".......
A lively colourful short novel with a profound message makes The Silence of the Girls a very enjoyable read that could possibly take the author in a different direction leaving the way open for many sequels. Recommended.
This book was hard to put down. Briseis was such a realistic and interesting character. Secondary characters were also well created, and lacked the stereotypical feel that most historical fiction uses. I look forward to reading more from this author. Overall, highly recommended.
It can be a rather difficult read. Not to say it’s hard to understand, but more of the detailed subject matter. It’s shocking to read when these women are going through an era where war is prevalent, and the best outcome for them is to be a trophy, instead of a slave. (Although, those two terms are pretty much the same thing if you think about it) It’s scary, and eye opening at the same time. These women go through a lot of trauma and Briseis has it slightly better than the other women out there (which says a lot). They’re pretty much treated like cattle and nothing could be done with it. Unfortunately this is the norm during war.
The relationship between Briseis and Achilles was interesting. Despite the conqueror and war trophy titles, it develops and evolves as Achilles goes though life changing events through the novel. You do however, have a heart for Patroclus. He seemed more human and his friendship with Briseis is what might have kept her going through all this time in the book. In a sense too, she also benefited from being with Achilles (albeit, not her choice)
This is definitely word a read through if you’re interested in Greek Mythology and retellings this is worth the read, despite the slow but steady pace. The retelling of the Iliad from Briseis’ point of view is a good one.
As a story that was recommended to me as showing the usually overlooked point of view of the women of these heroic tales...well, it was good. But I think having read Circe a few months ago spoiled its impact for me.
The other problem is the anachronistic speech; many of the Greeks speak as if they're in Cockney London and use a lot of modern expressions you wouldn't find in a book about the Trojan War. When Achilles is saying 'Mummy' and 'For god's sake,' it really takes away from the story. The writing was okay, but the book is a disappointment. There were other women, Cassandra, Helen, Andromache, any of whom have richer stories and could have spoken for the women. I think I'm being generous in giving this 3 stars, and now I'm looking for Miller's Song of Achilles to read; Circe was fantastic.
Pat Barker knows how to tell a story well and this novel is no exception. She takes a familiar tale and makes the least important people, the women taken as slaves, the central focus. I really enjoy that these old and familiar myths are not being kept static, but are being reimagined and reinvigorated. It's also interesting to compare this retelling with Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles, a substantially different and yet equally compelling version of the same story.
A review was just posted on May 31 that praises this novel and says it much better than I could.
Briseis went from being a queen in the Trojan city of Lyrnessus to being a slave and comfort girl to the great warrior Achilles. Achilles' best friend (and probable lover) Patroclus befriended Briseis because he knew himself what it was like to be an outsider. Achilles doesn't seem to care one way or another about Briseis but Achilles is angry when Agamennon demands her to take the place of Chryseis, his prize, when he has to return her to her father in order to stop the plague that is ravaging the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight and the Trojans almost win the war. Agamennon is abusive to Briseis and then ignores her. When Agamennon offers to return Briseis to Achilles if he will return to the fighting he asserts that he has not lain with her but Briseis conveys with a look to Achilles that this is not correct. So Achilles refuses the offer and stays out of the warfare. Then Patroclus offers to lead their troops into battle wearing Achilles' armor and Achilles agrees to that. When Patroclus is killed by the Trojan king's son, Hector, Achilles is distraught with grief. He goes back into battle himself and kills Hector, taking his body hostage. Agamennon makes good on his promise to return Briseis but Achilles hardly notices she is back. Achilles continually drags Hector's body around behind his chariot but each night Hector's dead body is restored to pristine condition. Finally Hector's father, Priam, makes his way alone to Achilles' compound and asks for his son's body. Achilles is touched by Priam's bravery and his pleas as a father and allows Priam to take the body. From then on Achilles seems to be better able to cope with the loss of Patroclus and he accepts Briseis into his bed again. Briseis realizes she is pregnant just before Achilles rides out to battle for the final time.
Seen through Briseis' eyes Achilles is something less than "Great Achilles, Brilliant Achilles etc." She says "we called him 'the butcher'". And that certainly comes through loud and clear. From the beginning of the book during the siege of Lyrnessus we see how bloodthirsty the Greeks were. No men were allowed to live; even pregnant women who might give birth to boys were killed. Women were raped, beaten, put to work and if they died, it didn't matter since there were other women to take their place. One of Breiseis' cousins jumped off a building rather than be taken hostage by the Greeks. Of course, the Trojans probably would have been just as bad if they had a chance. Perhaps Helen went willingly with Paris but she just as easily might have been captured and raped by him. No woman inside or outside of Troy had any real freedom. Briseis survived because she learned to efface herself with men. She was a survivor.