The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of a classic, male-dominated story from a female perspective. Everyone knows the basis of the story of Achilles and Helen of Troy – Helen leaves Achilles for a prince in the city of Troy (her choice or not is debated); Achilles attacks the city with his Greek army to reclaim his wife. Most of these stories have been told from the perspective of Helen or Achilles or Odysseus, but none that I know of have been told from the perspective of a queen-turned-concubine in the Greek camp outside the walls of Troy.
The novel begins with Achilles and the Greek army laying siege to Lyrnessus, a neighboring city of Troy who is ruled by King Euenus and his son Mynes, who is married to Briseis. Neighboring kingdoms have been sacked to fund and arm the Greeks; their men and boys murdered, women and girls enslaved, and cities ruined and robbed. Lyrnessus falls to Achilles, and Briseis watches in horror with the rest of the upper class women as their city is stripped, their men and boys are slaughtered, and their servants are raped and mutilated. The surviving upper class women and girls are led out of their homes, away from everything familiar and customary, and onto ships. Once they arrive at the Greek camp outside of Troy, the women are given to the men in the camp. It is a moment when it does not pay to be beautiful, well groomed, and sophisticated. Briseis, newly widowed and dethroned, is given to the man who killed her family to serve as his concubine.
Briseis sees Achilles as an arrogant and monstrous thug who cares little for the “prizes” he has acquired. Pat Barker illustrates the internal struggle that Briseis goes through during her time in camp. While she despises Achilles and the Greeks for taking everything that she had – jewelry, fine clothes, furniture, tapestries, freedom – she also knows that it could be much worse. Other women are beaten, raped, discarded, and worked to death, but Briseis has very little to endure other than pouring wine and sharing Achilles bed. She even starts to learn nursing and medicinal skills from the hospital, making her feel useful and more fulfilled than her previous life in Lyrnessus with Mynes.
We all know that the city of Troy eventually falls to the Greeks, but what isn’t normally told is about the savagery that the women and children have to endure after their city is looted and destroyed and all of the men, boys, and pregnant women are killed. Odysseus is said to have thrown a Trojan baby off a balcony after invading Troy. Briseis remembers the process that she went through after Lyrnessus was taken by the Greeks. Women and girls are sorted into cabins according to their looks and social class level – beautiful and young women in one cabin, older but productive women in another, less attractive or old are in a last cabin or killed. No matter how much they plead or cry or scream, the women are then led into an arena where they are first looked over by Agamemnon and Achilles, who choose their women and then give the others to the rest of the ranking members. The leftovers are cast out to the troops or given work in the camp kitchen, hospital, loom, or wherever. Sisters, mothers, daughters, friends are all sent of to their new master for their pleasure, no matter what it is. When Troy is finally sacked, Agamemnon and Achilles see to it that all of King Priam and Queen Hecuba’s children are executed, the youngest and fairest daughter is selected as a sacrifice. Briseis is selected to go to the cabin that the Trojan women are in and escort the innocent girl to slaughter, but somehow has become desensitized enough by life in the camp to even watch the young girl take her last breath.
The Silence of the Girls is griping, addictive, and fascinating. Pat Barker has clearly done extensive research on the ancient city of Troy, the Iliad, and what life was like for women during that time. Vivid characters and strong internal conflict make this novel easy to read and difficult to put down. Readers will feel the fear Briseis felt as her city was being attacked, the disgust she felt for Achilles and the members of the Greek army, and the sadness she experiences at the end of the story. I found myself wanting to know more about Briseis after Achilles dies and the Trojan war ends. What was life like for Briseis at Achilles father’s place? What becomes of her children? Does she find happiness?
This is a must read book for the summer!