Revisionist fiction or retellings still fill bookshelves to the brim these days—old fables pop up with shocking twists, we see fairytales shed their Disney-fied formula to give newer nods to their darker roots, and we even come to know stories of antiquity thrown in with “cyber” sensibilities. With the unremitting creativity of writers today, the possibilities are endless. Readers may clamor for something “original”, of course, but I find that there is charm in revisiting familiar narratives refashioned for the modern eyes.
Personally, I enjoy reading reimaginings of classic myths. I was rapt, for instance, while leafing through the story of the tragic Greek hero Achilles and his bosom companion Patroclus in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. I devoured Circe, a feminist take on a classic character from Homer’s The Odyssey by the same author, with equal fascination. There is also Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, spun from the decades-long wait of Penelope for her husband Odysseus from the Trojan War. None of these felt old to me. In fact, they gave substantial and refreshing heft to the original materials. Since then, I’ve been on the prowl for modern narrations of old legends.
That’s why when I heard about Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls—events of The Iliad, but told from the perspective of a significant female character—I just know I have to grab a copy.
The Silence of the Girls gives a #MeToo voice to the women of Homer’s epic poem, particularly to Briseis, who becomes the “war prize” of Achilles after the Greeks sacked their kingdom. Hark back to your high school required reading days and you may remember that in the story, as a prize of honour, Briseis is the linchpin of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The feud resulted to the former withdrawing from the battle against the Trojans, almost bringing defeat to their side. No more than a “status symbol,” Briseis is virtually voiceless there; we are deaf to what she feels, or what any woman in the story (who isn’t a goddess, for the immortals have a lot to say regardless of gender) has to convey other than grief and sorrow.
In this book, she introduces the readers to the margins of the largely masculine framework of the Homeric poem, swinging the spotlight from swift-footed, angry halfgods and bouts for glory to the harrowing truths that the war’s “collateral damages” must suffer. Barker’s pen made their lives palpable on the pages: we get to take a peek at the “rape camp,” we meet bed-slaves, former queens made to scrub dirt, young girls who get their throats slit to appease the dead or some wrathful deity, mothers who’ve helplessly watched their husbands and children get butchered. There’s blood and spit and sweat and tears, and not just in the battlefield. Barker truly doesn’t pull any punches here.
But true to its title, Briseis’ thoughts remain either in her head only, with the readers as the only witness, or with their small circle of bed-girls. “Silence becomes a woman,” a character reminds her of an adage twinned with their fates for all their lives. The book, in effect, becomes a psychological journey of individuals “muted” by their male-dominated society. “They were men, and free,” Briseis says. “I was a woman, and a slave. And that’s a chasm no amount of sentimental chit-chat about shared imprisonment should be allowed to obscure.”
Surprisingly, the novel is not told from Briseis’ perspective alone. We get brief chapters of Achilles’ thoughts, too, starting in the second volume. The first shift of voices was jarring, and my initial thought is that this defeats the very purpose of the book, which is to give a platform to her experiences. But I think this change is understandable and necessary, as Briseis is absent at the turning point of The Iliad that made Achilles go back to war again: the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ beloved friend. The inserts also provide a helpful crutch to the portrayal of these men, where we see them get fleshed out past the observing eyes of the sidelined victims—they are characters, too, after all, and not just one-dimensional, violent caricatures. Scenes in the battlefield are a welcome change as well. Barker’s descriptive writing is magic, and the readers get treated with vivid images such as this:
“On the battlefield, the Greeks fighting to save Patroclus’s corpse recognize the cry and run 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 [Achilles’s] 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.”
While most of the iconic scenes are recreated well (Achilles’ howling grief as he receives news of Patroclus’ demise at the hands of Hector, his berserker’s wrath while dragging Hector’s dead body around the gates of Troy, Priam’s visit to Achilles to retrieve his son’s dishonored corpse), I wished that Barker zeroed in more on the lives of the women at the camp. While reading the book, the Bechdel Test came to mind—will this even pass it? The lives of these girls maybe forever entwined with men, but they have their pasts to speak of, to make them rounder as characters. When Nestor tells Briseis to forget her past, I was hoping for a silent revolt. “Forget,” Briseis thinks of the order. “So there was my duty laid out in front of me, as simple and clear as a bowl of water: remember.” The rebellion seemed to have petered out early.
The writing style would have been impeccable if it weren’t for the anachronisms strewn across the whole thing, modern phrases that stick out. I’ve heard that Barker said this is deliberate on her part to emphasize the tale’s timelessness, but some of them just don’t fit, like pieces squeezed into the wrong puzzle. Still, for the most part, the narrative is a magnificent treat.
Unflinchingly honest, The Silence of the Girls is a significant work of fiction that would be best read right after The Iliad itself.
PS: I would recommend reading Miller’s The Song of Achilles right after this, for that book may help explain why Achilles is the way he is in the stories that tell his tragedy.