A writer who takes on The Iliad – the foundational work of Western literature has to be either very foolish or very good. Fortunately, Pat Barker, author of the Silence of the Girls, is the latter.
In the original story, hundreds of Greek men give up ten years of their lives to camp out round the walls of Troy and hundreds of Trojans try to drive them away or die trying.
There’s a lot of dying in the Iliad– men killed in battle; Trojan boys run through to prevent them from becoming men; copious animal and even the odd human sacrifice to appease the blood-hungry, life-force-hungry gods. Occasionally, they stop to bury the dead and play sport in the form of funeral games – the footballers of the Western Front weren’t as original we might think.
It’s a very male story. Even Helen, who goes on to a celebrity literary, artistic and mythological afterlife, is a bit player in The Iliad.
Women are there, but mainly as collateral damage. They are killed, to prevent them from bearing Trojan sons; they throw themselves from the ramparts of Troy or they are kidnapped, raped and distributed as prizes along with gold, jewellery and armour, but they are overwhelmingly passive and voiceless.
The Silence of the Girls tells the women’s story through the experience of Briseis – herself little more than a girl – from the death of her husband at the hands of Achilles, through her life as Achilles’ bed-slave and an erstwhile pawn in the internal politics of the Greek camp to the eventual destruction of Troy.
For the men, Troy is a tale of honour, valour and the profession of arms. For the women, it is a bar-room brawl that should never have been allowed to escalate into a war. For the men, there are winners and losers. For the women, there is only loss.
This novel is a beautifully crafted work of imagination that paints a vivid picture of the physical experiences and internal lives of the captive Trojan women, but it’s true genius is that Briseis and her fellow captives are simultaneously women and girls of every war, of every time and of every nation that has suffered defeat at the spear point or rifle barrel of a genocidal foe.