Between The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls, can I just say that I am here for these Greek mythology retellings? In want of more, I’m about to pick up the Percy Jackson and relive my youth.
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.
Pat Barker retells The Iliad from the feminine point of view of Briesis, a Trojan slave captured by Achilles.
Trigger warnings especially for rape and violence, so while it’s a short read, it’s definitely not a light read.
The book reads like an intense and WAY DARKER companion piece to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. In fact, I feel like Barker is throwing actual shade at Miller’s rendition, because toward the end of Silence of the Girls, Briesis wonders how people will retell what happened at Troy, and if they’ll remember it as a love story (which is kind of what Song of Achilles does from Achille’s and Patroclus’s point of view).
Either way, I digress. I love Greek mythology and the retellings of it, and The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls were both super enjoyable for very different reasons.
It was so fascinating to see Barker’s take on the iconic material. The pacing was slow, but delicate; she takes great care to illuminate all the details life in a Greek war camp. She is thorough in her telling of the chain events, from Briesis’s entry into servitude until Agamemnon’s prideful taking of Achille’s prized slave. It is real and raw and unapologetic in its warnings against remembering the legends too fondly.
It trends toward the relentlessly cruel side of life for the women slaves in the Greek war camps, and what Barker has done is a really interesting feminist look at a legendary story.