RETURN TO THE TROJAN WAR: THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

In the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe, which looked at The Odyssey from the point of view of Circe, Pat Barker, a former winner of the Booker Prize, takes a different perspective on the Trojan War, and especially the events of The Iliad, in her newest book, The Silence of the Girls.

The protagonist of The Silence of the Girls is Briseis, who had been the queen of one of Troy’s neighboring cities before the Greeks attacked and sacked the city.  Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, not only led the destruction of the city but also murdered its king, Briseis’ husband, and all her brothers.  She herself was taken by Achilles as his concubine, to be a prize of war. The change in her life was radical, but Briseis had to adjust, as did so many of her fellow women in and around Troy, to the changing fortunes of war.  

Becoming Achilles’ concubine was difficult enough, but then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, demanded Briseis be turned over to him (to make up for his having to give back the daughter of a priestess of Apollo, which Agamemnon only did because Apollo sent a plague to the Greek camp as punishment) . The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis led to the events of The Iliad, in which Achilles stayed in his tent, refusing to lend his men or his prowess to the Greek efforts because of Agamemnon’s attack on his honor (as he saw it).  Briseis was in a unique position, able to observe the conflict from both sides, even as she’s seen as a prize, an object to be bartered back and forth, and not a human being with thoughts and desires of her own.

The book is unsparing; all the brutal stuff that’s left out of The Iliad or only referred to in passing is depicted in pitiless detail here.  This is war, and people are slaughtered before your eyes, as her family members were slaughtered before Briseis’ eyes. Women are raped, women are enslaved, women witness their children being murdered.  You should be aware, going in, that this book is not going to whitewash any of that.

But you get to see Achilles and Agamemnon and all the other “heroes” of the Greek story as the complex and often brutal people they were.  It’s a version of the story that makes it clear there are no “good guys” and no “villains,” because the men on both sides of the war were both.

Whether or not you’ve read The Iliad recently (like in the last decade) or your only familiarity with the story is through the Brad Pitt movie Troy, you’ll be able to follow the plot of this book and feel with Briseis the tragedy of war from the point of view of the people who are not making the decisions but suffering their consequences.

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