There have been a number of novels published recently which look at Greek myths and legends from a feminine perspective. In the last few months I have enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, and For the Immortal by Emily Hauser, the story of Hippolyta the Amazon queen. Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls is another, this time bringing to life the character of Briseis and the events of Homer’s Iliad.
When the city of Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks during the Trojan War, Briseis loses her husband, King Mynes, and her father and brothers. The surviving women are shared out amongst the Greek conquerors as prizes of war and Briseis finds that she is given to the great warrior Achilles as a slave. The events which follow, such as the quarrel which breaks out between Achilles and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, over the possession of Briseis, and the fate of Patroclus when he impersonates Achilles on the battlefield, will already be known to anyone familiar with the Iliad. If all of this is new to you, though, don’t worry – no knowledge of Homer’s epic is necessary and Pat Barker makes it very easy to follow what is happening.
Most of the novel is narrated by Briseis herself and I found her a very engaging narrator. The nature of her story and the ordeals she faces make her an easy character to sympathise with; I was given a good understanding of how she felt about losing her freedom, becoming a slave and being at the mercy of the men responsible for murdering her family and destroying her city. This is quite a dark novel and Barker doesn’t hold back when describing the brutality of the men in the Greek army, both on and off the battlefield.
I was surprised to find that there are also some chapters written from the perspective of Achilles, who is very much the villain of the book. Although seeing Achilles’ side of the story certainly didn’t make me warm to him at all, it was good to get a different point of view, especially as it allowed us to see scenes and hear conversations that took place when Briseis was not present. However, because of the title of the book, I think it would have been nice if more female characters had been given a voice so that the silence of more than just one girl could be broken. We do meet some of the other women in the Greek camp, but only through Briseis’ eyes and Briseis is the only one we get to know in any depth.
I did really enjoy this book, though. It’s well written, very readable, and a fascinating portrayal of Ancient Greek society. If you’re interested in reading more about Briseis, you could try Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston and For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser. She also appears in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which will give you a very different view of Achilles as well!
This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.
Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.