The Silence of the Girls

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Title: The Silence of the Girls

Writer: Pat Barker

Publishing House: Hamish Hamilton

Date of Publication:August 30th 2018

Rating:5 stars

” ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon the King of men and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

The Human Stain, Philip Roth

Queen Briseis can hear the army approaching her land. The Myrmidons, brave warriors, led by the greatest of men. Achilles, son of a goddess, favoured by gods and men. And equally doomed. Then, Briseis becomes a slave, one of the dozens of women who find themselves soulless trophies in the quarters of the victorious armies. Such is the fate of the spoils of war…

The Iliad is the ” mother” of Western Literature. I’d say it is perfect by any standards. A ferocious story, immortal characters, love, intrigue, treachery, bravery, mercy, violence. But these are just words. The Iliad is greatness itself because it holds a mirror to every tiny speckle of the human soul. Our egoism, our fixated notion of ”right” and ”wrong”. Our eagerness to degrade others, our merciless ability to wound those we love, our pride. And our blindness…

Pat Barker creates a marvellous work, based on one of the most intriguing characters of The Iliad, Briseis. The woman who found herself in the centre of the dispute that painfully divided the army of the Achaeans (if you don’t know who the Achaeans are, I shall be severely frustrated…). Briseis is a big question mark in the epic. Can we allow ourselves to become romantic and believe he was in love with her? Was it just his wounded pride? Was she in love with her captor? Who can say, really? If we know The Iliad well, we have formed our own opinions. In Barker’s novel, the lines are blurred and I loved that. As a reader, it gave me immense freedom and a great opportunity to contemplate. There are no cardboard characters. Achilles isn’t a monster, Briseis isn’t the soulless victim. She and the rest of the women try to make do with what they are allowed. The men fight, their wrath over a futile war to satisfy Agamemnon’s greed has overcome the sense of righting the wrong and erupts. The women are the watchers. Yes, the victims, the voiceless ones. But not being able to give a loud voice to your thoughts doesn’t mean that you are silent.

”Sometimes at night I lie awake and quarrel with the voices in my head.”

Briseis was a queen, but a slave nonetheless. She just changed masters. Her husband was filth. She was childless. No child equals non-existence. So, where is the freedom in that? She seemed freer in captivity than in her now destroyed palace. Therefore, I don’t agree with the view that Briseis remains silent. How is she silent? Her thoughts are our primary guide to the narrative. One’s voice isn’t limited to words. Sometimes, thoughts are much more eloquent. And much more interesting. I also enjoyed the focus on Achilles during the second half of the novel and I appreciated Barker’s portrayal of him. I’ve never liked him but I have to understand him better through her approach. You CANNOT have a novel about Briseis without Achilles. Deal with it. There are a few modern colloquialisms but I can swear on my bookcases that I didn’t pay any attention to them. And that says a lot about the power of Barker’s writing.

Much has been written about The Silence of the Girls, and I don’t want to tire you. I don’t dwell in pseudo-political messages or whatever they’re called. Literary value is much more important than dubious labels that don’t interest me in the slightest. Pat Barker’s writing moved me, terrified me, made me anxious to reach the end, an end I know like the back of my palm because I am Greek, the Homeric epics are in our blood. This novel stands among my favourite ”Trojan War” works, along with Margaret George’s Helen of Troy and Bradley’s The Firebrand. It proves that quiet lyricism and depth need no verbose tricks to form a powerful novel.

”So we spent the nights curled up like spiders at the centre of our webs. Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies.”