The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker begins with the Greek sacking of the kingdom of Lyrnessus just before the fall of Troy. It ends with the death of Achilles. The story is in three parts. Part I is told in the voice of Briseis, a young queen of Lyrnessus, after she is taken captive by the Greeks and awarded to Achilles as his sex slave. Part 2 sees Briseis in the camp of an angry Agamemnon after he has been forced to return Chryseis to her father. It includes the death of Patroclus, Achilles bloodthirsty rampage against the Trojans, and his killing of Hector. Part 3 chronicles Achilles’ subsequent mutilation of Hector’s body, the return of his corpse to Priam, the death of Achilles, and Briseis’ departure for Greece as the wife of Alcimus.
Briseis narrates the events in Part 1 in what is the strongest and most compelling section of the novel. After witnessing the brutal slaughter of her husband and brothers by Achilles, she is carted off with the rest of the captive women to be parceled off to the Greek victors as sex slaves. She lives in the Greek camp with other slave women and is at the beck and call of Achilles’ whims—sexual or otherwise. It is while she is at the Greek camp that she befriends Patroclus.
Barker’s powerful description of the Greek camp is immersive. Through the eyes, ears, and nose of Briseis, we experience its confined and oppressive quarters, its filth and stench, its rats and dogs, its Greek warriors in all their drunken and bawdy behavior, and its slave women living in constant and unmitigated fear. Briseis acknowledges her situation is better than some since she is Achilles’ concubine and, therefore, off limits from Greek pawing hands. But she conveys her strong sense of trepidation that the slightest wrong move or wrong word on her part may cause Achilles to discard her, at which time she becomes available fodder for Greek warriors.
In addition to the endless violence and bloodshed that threads its way throughout the novel, what emerges in this section is the bonding that takes place among these resilient slave women, deprived of all personal agency, some of whom are already pregnant by their captors. They advise each other, support each other, and do their best to navigate a safe space for themselves amid the horror and carnage.
With Parts 2 and 3, Barker abandons the exclusive first-person narration of Briseis and, instead, alternates it with third person limited omniscient with its focus primarily on Achilles. This shift in point of view is unfortunate, causing the novel to lose much of its strength. The focus transfers primarily to the male players, their thoughts and interactions. Although Briseis observes and comments on the events, she is increasingly shuttled off to its margins. What emerges in Parts 2 and 3 is a straightforward retelling of the Greek epic interspersed with Briseis’ point of view.
Another problematic issue with the novel is the tendency to inject modern slang and curse words in an attempt to convey realistic conversation. In what is otherwise eloquent prose and evocative description, the use of modern derogatory epithets for women and their body parts sounds jarringly incongruous. There are, perhaps, more effective ways of conveying realistic conversations without having them sound so out of place.
In spite of these shortcomings, the novel has much in its favor. The characters are complex, robust, and realistically portrayed—Achilles with his mummy issues, internal conflicts, brutality toward some, and tenderness toward others; Agamemnon with his cowardice as he hides behind a blustering ego; Patroclus with his love for Achilles and kindness toward Briseis; and Briseis with her compassion and strength as a survivor and who, much to her credit, does not fall passionately in love with Achilles.
The character portrayals; the realistic immersion in the Greek camp; the movingly depicted scene between Priam and Achilles; and the strength of Part 1 for offering a powerful voice to the women captives, their de-humanizing conditions, and the impact of war on their shattered lives make this a compelling read.