The Silence of the Girls

A week ago I finished Madeline Miller’s Circe; immediately after, I dove right into The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker. The two novels have much in common. Both were published in 2018, both were Book of the Month selections, and both center on famous figures from Greek mythology. More so than Circe, The Silence of the Girls especially draws from Homer’s Iliad. However, despite their many similarities, the two novels are undeniably different in both scope and narrative.

Circe spans many centuries, following its main character – a goddess – through many well-known events in Greek mythology. It’s a story made up of stories, and it feels epic and sweeping.

The Silence of the Girls, in contrast, takes place over the course of several months at the end of the Trojan War. Our main characters are all mortal humans – though gods and goddesses are never far from their presence. The story here is counted in days, not centuries, and the scope is detailed, focused, and intimate.

We start with Briseis, a young woman whose life is turned upside down when her city – near Troy, in modern-day Turkey – is sacked by the Greeks. Her husband and brothers are all killed, and she becomes their killer’s slave. As the fates would have it, Briseis is given to Achilles to be his bed-girl and dinner servant. We watch through her eyes as she goes into survival mode. She privately grieves her losses and the drastic changes of life, and relies on the tentative bonds she forms with her fellow Trojan slave women. Briseis may hate and distrust her Greek captors, but she must also adapt to life as a slave if she wants to make it out alive.

Achilles comes off as cold and distant. He’s not as cruel or violent as others – at least, not with Briseis. For all his killing on the battlefields, he seems more mild-mannered and creative than I’d have expected. Briseis has it better than some of the other enslaved women, but it’s no wonder that she longs to escape her captors. The little comfort she has comes from Achilles’s right hand man, Patroclus, who is genuinely kind to her. His bed girl, Iphis, becomes another needed companion.

But just as Briseis starts to settle into her new life, storms of change start to emerge again. It starts with an issue involving Agamemnon, a fellow Greek king in the Trojan War, and his slave girl, Chryseis. One things leads to another, and eventually a rat-fueled plague is rampant within the Greek army’s camps. The only way to get rid of it is to appease the gods, which will mean leaving Agamemnon without his slave. In an unexpected turn of events, Briseis is taken from Achilles to be Agamemnon’s new bed girl, and this leads to a breakdown of the Greek army. Due to the slight and the loss of his own slave, Achilles refuses to fight, which means the Trojans may very well win the war.

It’s during these events – Part 2 of the novel – that the perspective starts to shift. We’re no longer seeing things just through the eyes of Briseis. Now, we also get third-person narrative centered on Patroclus, and then later on Achilles. It’s an interesting stylistic choice, especially coming up 100 pages into the book. In effect, the story starts to move away from Briseis and gains more focus on Achilles, also allowing for a closer emotional connection to his psyche.

For a while the change seems odd, but by the end it starts to make sense. As Briseis says in the last pages of the book, she was just a character in Achilles’s story. She and the other slave girls were silent characters, mostly forgotten to history. And yet they were there and they played an important role in how things worked out – who lived, who died, and how the war was fought.

Although it begins as Briseis’s story, The Silence of the Girls is more a tale of Achilles, more an observation of how absent the women are from the Greek myths we know. But as it draws to its close, Briseis ends on a point of empowerment and a look forward to where her own story can begin.

The Silence of the Girls is a captivating novel that throws readers into the day-to-day life behind the scenes of the Trojan War. It tackles slavery and focuses on the slave women, but it also delves into human connection, grief, revenge, and survival. I enjoyed reading it back-to-back with Circe, and will certainly search for more books that reimagine or retell Greek mythology.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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