Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (2018)

When this novel came out I knew that at some point I would read it, but I waited for quite a long time. It was because I’d worked on a short story / novella on the same premises: rewrite one of the Greeks classic myths (the Illiad and Aeneid) taking the point of view of one of the anonymous women mentioned in passing (those stories are full of names and details). I loved working on that story, but I didn’t finish it. Having a famous writer write and publish something similar was incredibly validating and somehow frustrating… But now my feeling is that thanks to the attention and time I devoted to the original Greek story, I enjoyed the novel even more!

The tragedy of Troy defeated by the Greeks is here told by Briseis, a woman who used to be a wealthy queen of a neighboring town but was enslaved by Achilles. She is mentioned many times in the Illiad because she’s a disputed war prize between Achilles and Agamemnon. But the Illiad doesn’t let her speak or act, she’s mere chattel and she of course has no say whether she is raped by one or the other glorious hero.

Pat Barker gives her an inner voice and the gift of observation and survival. Briseis has feelings and opinions and she is an actor of her life at different points of the book. Pat Barker also gives a reality of the fate of countless women that were enslaved to male warriors and whose lives depend on them. She describes the camps where soldiers lived and waited for the battle with rats and drunken parties and women in shacks doing chores. This is brutal and violent and does a great job counterbalancing Homer’s epic poetry (his chants are full of blood but the pictures are glorious and beautiful still).

The book is stunning and full of complexity, characters are multilayered and attaching, nothing is black-and-white, even in disturbing places, like when some women end up being in love with their master. But Briseis understand that even though women are basically invisible, their children (born out of rapes from Greeks) will still fondly remember their Trojan mothers. The descendants of the victors are also the descendants of the Troyan women somehow (probably a big difference with modern extermination wars where it was not possible for victors obsessed with racial purity to have kids with their concubines and still acknowledged as their own).

This is not a fun book but indeed a memorable one. I see that Pat Barker went on to write more about the fate of the Trojan women but given how gruesome this might be, I’ll prefer to wait before trying it.

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