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the silence of the girls

9 june 2024

"The women of Greek myths are finally talking back," writes Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times piece. Madeline Miller's novel Circe (2018), which I like very much, is the blockbuster in this respect. Circe has been so relentlessly imitated – down to its cover design – that it now seems you can't turn around in a bookstore without seeing some female from Greek legend with her own story to tell.

Yet The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker, also appeared in 2018 and can't have been a knockoff of Circe. The Silence of the Girls does seem to be in dialogue with Madeline Miller's earlier novel The Song of Achilles (2011), which which tells the same story, both novels retelling the Iliad. I haven't read The Song of Achilles. I have a lot of catching up to do in this mini-genre.

I do know, thanks to reviews, that The Song of Achilles takes the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles' best friend and (rumors are immemorial) his lover. Barker, in The Silence of the Girls,, chooses instead the perspective of Briseis, the woman taken as a "prize" by Achilles and then taken from him by Agamemnon: the inciting event of the entire Iliad.

Barker follows Briseis from the sack of her city through her enslavement to Achilles, her befriending of Patroclus, her detour in the tents of Agamemnon, and her return to Achilles so that she can witness the climax and denouement of the Iliad. For the most part, Briseis is the narrator. Occasionally, Barker will shift into third-person narration, sometimes to show us Achilles and Patroclus on their own, sometimes while Briseis is still present but she wants to show a scene from the outside. I'm not sure this was a great choice. Briseis is a strong narrating voice, and I would have liked to see her perspective more consistently.

Barker plays down the romantic aspects of the Achilles/Patroclus relationship, aspects that Miller had apparently played up. Barker's Achilles is distinctly heterosexual. He even becomes obsessed with Briseis after she emerges from a dip in the ocean and reminds him of his sea-goddess mother. He's heterosexual but he's not healthily so. And he really does love Patroclus better than any woman, though Barker via Briseis doesn't reduce that love to sexual attraction. It's complicated, Briseis tells us. One can still read that as they're simply gay or bi, and Briseis doesn't know how to talk about it, so she cloaks them in mystery. Or maybe it really is complicated. But the relationship polygon works, dramatically. Patroclus truly befriends Briseis, even though she is a slave without a right to her body or her thoughts. In the process, ultimately, Achilles too will learn to become, if not Briseis' friend exactly, at least her confidant.

Barker's emphasis is on war's utter disregard for human life and dignity. She focuses especially on the rapes, beatings, and killings suffered by the women who are war's prizes. War is brutal for men too, but it's glamorous; war is never glamorous for women. Hence one of the motives for the women's-retelling genre. Future audiences, Briseis imagines, "won't want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. … They won't want to know we were living in a rape camp" (291).

Though of course the re-imagination of women's part in war and its aftermath was already a thing in classical times, though the re-imaginations that survive were created by men: Antigone, The Trojan Women. Every few centuries, it seems, writers remember the women of Greek myth and then forget they did, for another few centuries.

Barker, Pat. The Silence of the Girls. New York: Doubleday [Penguin Random House], 2018. PR 6052 .A6488S55

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