Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls. Hamish Hamilton 2018
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of these things; we called him the ‘butcher’.
The title of Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls, alludes to the psychological horrors of a different kind in The Silence of the Lambs, perhaps, but mostly to the lack of agency or voice of the women and girls in the novel. These opening words of the novel prepare us for the other story not related by Homer in The Iliad – Euripides gets closer in The Trojan Women: the terrible fate of the defeated side in the Trojan War – especially the women and girls.
Barker imagines for us in painful detail the ordeal endured as a captive by Briseis, wife of King Mynes, after the sacking by Achilles and his fearsome Myrmidons and other Greek warriors, of her city, Lyrnessus (near Troy). It’s a fate shared by all the captured women.
The Silence of the Girls was a painful experience to read because of its brutal depiction of the violence perpetrated by these blood-crazed fighters, and more particularly because of the calculated, brutal subjection, humiliation and dehumanising cruelty perpetrated by them on the captive women.
As in The Iliad, the story relates how Achilles, already notorious for his volatile temper, acquires the epithet ‘rage-filled’. King Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, with a reputation for avoiding the dangers of the battlefield, relinquishes his own trophy sex slave when a plague that decimates the Greek camp is attributed to divine assistance on her behalf, at the behest of her priestly father. To replace her, he decides he’ll take Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as the next most beautiful and prestigious (being royal) trophy.
Achilles, insulted and furious at his king’s selfishness and weakness, takes to his tent and sulks, refusing to fight any more. This swings the balance of the war in the Trojans’ favour, so talismanic, murderously efficient and furious is he when fighting at the head of the Greek army. His close friend Patroclus (there are suggestions that the two warriors are lovers) gets him to agree to let him wear Achilles’ distinctive armour and helmet so that the Trojans will believe he’s returned to the battle. He rallies the Greek forces when he enters the fray in this disguise, the Trojans duly lose heart, but Patroclus is killed by the Trojan hero, Hector.
Now Achilles’ rage is unprecedented, augmented by guilt and grief. Supplied with magnificent new armour by his sea-goddess mother, he resumes leadership of the Greeks, and the Trojans are routed. The city is ruthlessly sacked, the citizens slaughtered. As usual, the Greeks murder everyone not to be taken as slaves. Even pregnant women are stabbed through the abdomen, in case the child being carried should turn out to be a boy and become an enemy fighter when grown up.
The highest-born and prettiest girls and women become a new set of sex slaves, subjected to the usual humiliations, treated as chattels – as Briseis is. ‘Don’t think about your previous life,’ Greek Nestor had advised her when she was first enslave. ‘Forget! This is your life now.’ But she refuses to forget: she is determined not to lose her identity, and resolves to remember, retain her voice. Even though this makes the daily indignities and cruelty more difficult to bear, at least then she won’t lose her sense of self. And she’s only nineteen…
The indignities begin when she’s paraded with the other women captives in front of the victorious Greeks after the fall of her city, and they’re inspected as potential prizes by the leaders. Briseis feels like ‘a cow, tethered and waiting to be sacrificed.’ She tries to picture her past life, her eyes closed, but she hears a roar and threatening jokes from the drunken soldiery. Achilles grips her chin and tilts her head to examine her looks. When he walks away she opens her eyes:
”Cheers, lads,” he said. “She’ll do.” And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.
A chilling echo of the heartbreaking, equally dismissed testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. Barker’s jauntily demotic “laddish” style (that also runs through much of the narrative) makes the horror all the more despicable. It’s simply normal for the men to speak and act like this.
For much of the rest of the novel we are privy to every personal indignity and sexual assault she has to endure, first under Achilles. His brusque couplings are compared at first with a soldier’s crude eagerness to try on new armour, – only this novelty is the living woman, who’s made to feel no more than a coveted commodity. His nightly sexual acts soon turn to something more personal and frenzied when she comes to bed smelling of the salt sea in which she likes to bathe and symbolically cleanse herself each evening. But Barker won’t let us find solace in this: she thus reminds him of the scent of his Nereid mother, and his passion is portrayed as disturbingly Oedipal and hence even more humiliating and degrading for Briseis. But he barely speaks to her once he’s sated; she doesn’t exist for him as a sentient human being. It’s this kind of constant misogyny in the narrative that makes it so hard to keep reading.
Briseis’ other daily ordeal involves being forced to wait on Achilles and his entourage (one of whom wears her murdered father’s tunic as a trophy that’s particularly gruesome for her to have to witness), smiling and enduring their leers and lascivious advances as she pours their wine – though none would dare go further with their general’s ‘prize of honour’. She realises she’s not being treated ‘as a thing. A slave is a thing.’
Her dread is that he’ll tire of her and she’ll be handed over to the common soldiery, without even a roof over her head – a common fate for sex slaves like her.
I struggled to the end of this harrowing, fierce novel, but can’t say I enjoyed it. The bestial cruelty meted out by the men on these reified, terrified women was almost unbearable. The vicious battle scenes were almost as hard to take – more difficult in many ways than the senseless slaughter and psychological trauma Barker depicted in her 1990s WWI Regeneration trilogy, which I read when it first came out.
I suppose I persisted to the end because of the power and contemporary resonance of her central message about gender inequalities and social injustice arising from them, and the importance of Briseis articulating her story in her own voice, against all odds. As in the earlier trilogy, soldiers are portrayed as showing their moral defects more plainly in the hurly-burly of war. It’s generally other men who tell their stories and elide their worst defects.
On the final page, when she considers what the unborn people of the future will ‘make of us’ – the silent girls – she’s certain of only one thing:
…they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told of 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. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
His story. His, not mine. It ends at the grave.
The Trojan War imagined by Homer (or whoever produced the epic Iliad) is here reimagined, retold by one of the voices silenced by history men, and the traditional narrative takes on a decidedly different, gynocentric nature. Less soft. Not a love story.