Silence of the Girls – Briseis’s Story

Trigger Warning: Rape, abuse

If you are a fan of Greek mythology, know the legend of Troy, or maybe seen the 2004 movie Troy with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom, Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker might be your new evening read.

Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer’s The Iliad that brings the stories and perspective of the women and girls who were trapped  in the Trojan War. 

Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, is the narrator of the book. When Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks, and her family killed, she becomes a war prize for the mighty Greek warrior Achilles. However, she quickly becomes entangled in the dispute between him and Agamemnon, the King leading the Greeks to war. 

The novel has a very clear feminist message about the struggle women face in a male-dominated world, and also narrative. Retellings of the Iliad and Troy very often focus on the males of the story, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Agamenon. Barker is able to tell this story in an authentic way, never being too preachy but never side lining the issue either. 

The women in the story definitely go through ‘a lot’. They are enslaved, widowed, raped. They watch their city burn, their children killed and worse. Briseis are the eyes that take us through the slaughter. 

Most of the book takes place in the Greek’s camp through Briseis’s eyes, as she navigates life as a slave to the enemy. She witnesses many injustices and wrongfulness and uses what little influence she has to survive. She is a strong force in the story, and she shows that strength with resilience and intelligence. 

“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.”

Although this book deals with rape and sexual violence, I do want to note that this book does not go into grotesque detail or linger on the violent scenes. This isn’t like watching Game of Thrones.  

Achilles is a very interesting and complex character, portrayed both through Briseis’s eyes and his own. His relationship with Briseis, his concubine, as she’s known, is one of the more intriguing parts of the book. What’s also really refreshing to see, is that Barker does not create a romance around these characters, as so many iterations of the Iliad often do, including the 2004 movie. 

It’s true the two do have a connection, as Achilles does refer to Briseis as a wife, and Briseis at times feels lucky to be his war prize, rather than one of the other more violent warriors in the camp. But in the end, it’s all about survival and coping with the atrocities happening just on their doorstep. 

Barker’s writing must also be noted. Most Greek mythology captures a descriptive elegance, and Barker has brought her own bewitching tone and style to the story. 

“So many pebbles on that beach—millions—all of them worn smooth by the sea’s relentless grinding, but not this one. This one had stayed sharp.”

Silence of the Girls is an exceptional, well written story, especially with its depiction of the women who frequently get sidelined for the huge male egos of the story. Briseis of course as the main character, but the book also gives voices to Euripides, Hecuba, Helen and Andromache. 

This book is not only about Briseis, it’s about war. Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Patroclus, and other familiar characters from the Iliad. It is indeed a brutal story, at times difficult to read, but it has a haunting beauty to its writing and portrayal of these often forgotten female characters.

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