British novelist Pat Barker’s grim take on the Trojan War opens and closes with a silencing.
In its opening chapters, the young queen Briseis watches from a rooftop as the Greek army invades her city Lyrnessus. As the men crowd up the stairs, her cousin Arianna reaches out to her with a wordless invitation, before throwing herself off the parapet. Briseis, unable to follow, lets herself be taken.
In the aftermath of the war, after the Greek victory, the 15-year-old Trojan princess Polyxena tries to speak before she is sacrificed, but is gagged before her throat is slit.
“Silence becomes a woman”, goes the saying that Briseis has spent her life learning, which Barker spends the novel trying to undo.
Through the eyes of someone whom Homer treated as a minor character in Iliad, she presents a brutal, unflinching version of the war and what it might be like to be its spoils.
Briseis has grown up in the shadow of the 10-year war, waged to reclaim the beautiful Helen from the Trojans who took her from her husband.
After Briseis watches the Greeks’ greatest warrior Achilles kill her husband and brothers, she is taken as his “bed-girl” and inducted into the world of the army camp.
Through her testimony, the women of the camp emerge fully-fleshed from the shadows of the men who enslaved them, a community who bond in the face of the unspeakable things done to them.
There is gentle Iphis, who has come to love her master Patroclus; Uza, to whom Odysseus tells tales of his wife back home; Tecmessa, who brags about bearing Ajax’s son but covers the bruises he leaves on her neck; and sweet, devout Chryseis, with whom the commander-in-chief Agamemnon is obsessed.
Chryseis’ salvation is the worsening of Briseis’ lot. When her father, a priest, brings a plague by the god Apollo upon the Greeks, Agamemnon is forced to return her to appease him, but demands Achilles give up Briseis to replace her.
In retaliation, Achilles refuses to keep fighting, sulking instead in his tent as the Trojans push the Greeks back. Everyone, of course, blames Briseis. For a brief period, she gets the Helen of Troy experience: the discord of men heaped on her head.
This is a draining read, not because of any graphic depiction of violence but rather what is left unsaid.
Briseis’ initial catatonia at her situation gives way to a kind of survivalist numbness, even black humour, which is breached from time to time by awful moments such as Agamemnon telling her to open her mouth, then spitting in it.
“I was a slave,” she thinks, “and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.”
Though most of the narrative is Briseis’, some parts are told from the point of view of Achilles or Patroclus, who occupies an ambiguous position somewhere between Achilles’ best friend and slave, and who is thus the only man in camp able to empathise with Briseis.
The struggle for a woman to wrest control of the narrative is evident because Achilles’ story is magnetic. His sections are more lyrical and evoke sympathy even as he behaves at other times like an absolute monster. The story strains to get back to him, the heart of the legend.
But it is Briseis, with her quiet resilience, who takes the story with her in the end.
Barker has in a way come full circle here, from her rage at the lot of deprived women in Union Street (1982) and Blow Your House Down (1984) and her ruthless dismantling of war’s glorification in the Regeneration trilogy. Both meet in this novel, filling a canon of silence with clear, urgent words. – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
The Silence Of The Girls
Author: Pat Barker