Pat Barker is recognised for her perceptive writing about war. Indeed, some time ago I wrote a post about her World War I novel, Regeneration.
The Silence of the Girls goes much further back in history — to the time of the Trojan Wars. It has been labelled a feminist Iliad. Mainly through the eyes of Briseis, we experience the cost of war to women — women who survive as slaves when men destroy their cities and kill their brothers, fathers and children.
Peter Paul Rubens: Briseis is given to Achilles
Pat Barker has taken what we know of that time and looked at it through a different lens — how would the women have felt when, for example, they witness the teenage daughter of Priam and Hecuba being gagged and killed as a sacrifice? How did Briseis feel when she was handed over as an ‘award’ to Achilles after his army had sacked her city, Lyrnessus? Briseis says, ‘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’.
The characters in this book speak in 21st century English, and the women, particularly Briseis have an assurance that one might not expect of someone kept in subjugation. At first I balked at the language. For example, Nestor and Achilles are talking: ‘Nestor smiled and shook his head. “You won’t leave. Whatever else you are, you’re not a deserter.”
“I don’t see it as desertion. This isn’t my war.”
“You were keen enough to get into it.”
“I was seventeen.” Achilles leant forward. “Look, what he did today was totally outrageous, everybody knew it, and there wasn’t one voice raised against it.”
“Mine was. Then, and later.”
“So now I just think: Fuck it. He wants Troy, he can take Troy — without me. Except we both know he can’t.”‘
I realised, firstly, that we have no idea how people spoke then, so why try to make something up? And then, more importantly, it seemed that the use of 21st century English provides a sense of universality. This is a book about women and war — women’s relationships with men, not particularly about Ancient Greece. One of the most poignant parts of the book is where, debilitated by age and unarmed, Priam makes his way alone through the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the mutilated body of his son Hector. Briseis makes sure that Hector’s body is covered with a linen sheet and, in spite of the inhumanely savage way the son’s body has been treated, in Priam’s presence, there is a kind of reverence and respect for the father’s wishes, even though he is the enemy. These things are timeless.
Tiepolo: Eurybates and Talthybius lead Briseis to Agamemnon