Booker Prize Winner Pat Barker’s new release, The Silence of the Girls, was one of my Book of the Month selections for September. It’s a somewhat-modernized retelling of Homer’s The Iliad with a heavier focus on some of the female characters– primarily Achilles’s new slave woman, Briseis.
About the book: Briseis has married a king and done well for herself, even if her husband prefers another woman and his mother hates her for her apparent barrenness. She’s royalty. At least, she is until her city falls to Achilles. The men are killed, the goods looted, and the women taken to the encamped Greek army on the shores of Troy– Briseis among them. To the Greeks, she is no one. Maybe an important slave because of her previous royal ranking, but a slave nonetheless. She is given to Achilles as a war prize. In his huts and throughout the army compound, she becomes acquainted with the other women and the notable Greeks, just as the war is reaching its dramatic climax.
“I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.”
The Silence of the Girls is a beautiful book that gives women a voice in a tale that’s been dominated by men for thousands of years. It gives a girl that Homer doesn’t honor with much mention a whole life, thoughts, opinions, and wishes. For that alone, I wanted to love this book, but in the end, I only liked it.
I have quite a list of pros and cons. First, this is a modernized retelling. It still takes place in ancient Greece on the same shores of the legendary city of Troy, but all of the dialogue comes from present-day Britain. This tactic makes the characters more reachable and human than those wisps of imagination, the gods. Giving them present-day mannerisms allows for updated commentary and an easier reading experience.
“It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they’d have Helen’s eyes.”
But the modernization didn’t work for me across the entire board. Briseis’s notice of and reaction to the unfairness of her circumstances is too modern in places to fit its story. The worst part of her slavery in The Iliad is that it is a common practice, it is the norm; though Briseis is not the only female slave whose main job is to warm some important man’s bed, she reacts to it in a way that reveals modern knowledge that such customs will be overturned, that there will be a time and place where women are closer to equals. This change made the book less of a cultural/historic learning experience and more of a modern outrage toward gender inequality, which could have been a clear enough theme through a more subtle handling of perspective.
“ Things do change. And if they don’t you bloody well make them.’
‘Spoken like a man.’ “
One of the biggest differences between Barker’s work and Homer’s is that The Silence of the Girls is more of a nuanced study of human character while The Iliad uses godly interference as reasoning for many outcomes. I loved the balance of gods and men in The Iliad, but to Briseis the gods are distant beings who don’t hear prayers or intervene. I missed the gods, personally, but their absence does allow for a deeper characterization. I was particularly moved by Patroclus in this version of the story, and hated Achilles with a passion I’ve never been able to summon for him before.
Which leads me to another pro/con: that Briseis’s story becomes Achilles’s almost as soon as she becomes his slave. To an extent, I liked what Barker does to control the narrative, showing the way ancient girls were silenced in greater history not just by taking their voices but every choice they could possible make:
“I’d been trying to escape not just from camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story– his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”
But that was also a frustrating element for me because it made the plot predictable. I think the fact that I had just read 3/4 of The Iliad (primarily because I wanted to read this Briseis retelling), took out any surprise I might have found in the storyline. Reading The Iliad with an eye out for Briseis’s tragedies put a lot of the ideas that The Silence of the Girls explores into my mind before I read it: the horror and brutality of being pulled from one’s home, seeing one’s family killed, and being treated as an object by your enemies were all emotions I was able to pull from the plot of The Iliad and the premise of The Silence of the Girls alone, and seeing them played out over a full 300 pages didn’t change the way those concepts affected me.
And then there were a few truly baffling moments, like this one:
“Even though it made no sense, to me or to anybody else, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl.”
(Why not? Helen started a major war. The same war, in fact, that this Greek army is fighting for.)
But despite a few dissatisfactions, I did find The Silence of the Girls to be a much pleasanter reading experience than The Iliad; it’s a quick, compelling read, and I think ultimately I would recommend it in place of The Iliad,or at least, to be read before The Iliad. It’s not so much a change from the original as a fairer presentation of the traditional story. Color picture rather than the black and white classic. I think I was simply expecting too much going in to appreciate the strong simplicity Barker weaves, though I might have loved it more under other circumstances.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of the highlights for me from my BOTM choices this year. I liked it better than Madeline Miller’s Circe, the other Greek mythology retelling I’ve read in the past months, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected to be impressed. I’m more interested in finally picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles to round out my Trojan War reading experience, but I think I need a little break from Troy. I’ll read The Odyssey first, for a change of pace.
What’s your favorite retelling?
The Literary Elephant