Inspiring Older Readers
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
I realise that I don’t know very much about the legendary Greek hero Achilles apart from a dim recollection of his extraordinary strength and prowess in battle against the Trojan army. Like most people I also make the connection to the well-known term ‘Achilles’ heel’ – a fatal weakness - to his eventual downfall because his mother who was a sea goddess neglected to dip this part of his body into the River Styx when she was ensuring his protection.
After reading this novel about the Trojan War that focuses on his more private everyday life with all its shortcomings and challenges, I feel that I know him a bit better. But this is not really a story about him. It is about how he is viewed through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan queen who was abducted and shipped from Troy to the Greek camp. After killing at least sixty Trojans in one day, including her own husband and four brothers, she has been awarded to Achilles as his battle prize and so her fate is sealed.
Anything written by Pat Barker is a delight to read, even if what she is writing about is ghastly. Briseis hiding in a tower with the other terrified and grieving women who await their fate as the conquering army draws closer is a scene that will forever haunt me. First they see and hear the systematic bloody slaughter of men and boys, then the organised looting that strips away the wealth accumulated by generations. Next comes the celebratory drinking and the gang rapes of the slave women who are dragged from their hiding place in the basement, and then the moment when Nestor, King of Pylos comes to her on the roof, bows and tells her not to be frightened.
Determined to maintain her dignity, tight lipped Briseis endures the bitter humiliation of being taken prisoner with all the horrors of being transported on an overcrowded, stinking below decks. Barker describes in graphic detail how she is herded with others before the jeering soldiers, culminating in being raped by her new owner Achilles in his hut by the sea. Despite being fearful, Briseis is philosophical about what might happen after this ordeal and the next morning is confident enough to leave the now empty bed and explore the seashore. Throughout the novel there are many beautiful passages describing the sea because it is a constant close force amidst the turmoil of the camp and it represents freedom and a link to her family for Briseis:
‘Out there beyond the roiling waves, in the calm place where the sea forgets the land, were the souls of my dead brothers’.
She soon realises that it is also hugely significant for Achilles as his mother is a sea goddess and so he is compelled to visit her there every day. With her we learn that this relationship is the source of his strength and perhaps also the cause of his sorrow.
As the days drag on she gives us many glimpses of the ‘curious mixture of riches and squalor’ which is inevitable when fifty thousand fighters and their slaves are crammed onto a small strip of land for nine years. The stench is visceral, as are the plague of rats that swiftly bring disease and death. There is a belief that this plague is a punishment from the gods and that they need to be appeased. For reasons that are too complicated to go into here, this results in the return of Chryseis, who is the daughter of a priest of Apollo who was captured as a trophy of war in an earlier battle and has since been kept as a sex slave by Agamemnon. This episode is the first that emphasises the enduring power of women in this superficially male dominated world. Breseis goes on to become an important bargaining chip between Achilles and Agamemnon and, rather like Helen of Troy ( who also plays a small part in this story), is consequently viewed by men with a mixture of salacious desire and contempt. Women are horribly exploited but also feared and this is both their strength and their salvation. There are many examples to remind the reader of this of this throughout the story including the memorable scene where the women are trusted by the men to lay out the body of the much hated Myron who has suffered a long, painful death as a result of the plague:
‘We waited till the door had closed behind them. Then one of the women picked up Myron’s poor limp penis between her thumb and forefinger and waggled it at the rest of us. The women hooted with laughter – and immediately clapped their hands over their mouths to silence themselves. But nothing could contain that laughter which rose n pitch and volume till it turned into whoops of hysteria that must have been clearly audible outside the hut.’
The men clearly dare not intervene in what is seen as ‘women’s work’. Not only do they lay out the dead but they also use their sexual powers to fascinate and compel so that men compete over their favours. They of course have the ultimate power over men because they give them birth and tend to their sons when they are small. Towards the end of the story, Briseis reminds us that despite the ‘red blur of killing’, each individual man who dies a brutal death in war was once cherished by his mother:
‘We’re going to survive- our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too’.
The backcloth of the absurd conventions of war and peace, temporary truces and blood sacrifice still allows insight into some fascinatingly sensitive characters and relationships, including one that slowly develops between Achilles and Briseis. She speaks directly to the implied reader at several points, daring us to judge her decisions and her seeming adjustment to her life as a slave. Despite all the humiliations and the horrors that she experiences and witnesses, she stays fiercely determined to survive and be remembered. The violence is relentless and continues pretty much to the last page but it is one of those rare books that I was genuinely sorry to finish.