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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

It never ceases to amaze me that the works of Homer, written some two and a half thousand years ago, can continue to inspire more and more novels. It is testament to the genius of Homer that writers are still picking different viewpoints from his work or taking a single scene and stretching it out to fill a whole book. Two of the six books on the 2019 shortlist for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction draw on tales from Homer – this one and ‘Circe’. This is not a new process, even in ancient times it was being done as poets and playwrights followed the lives of some of the characters after the battle for Troy.

Pat Barker has taken the character of Briseis and shown the events in the Iliad from her perspective. I always find her an interesting character, because just as Helen of Troy had been the “cause” of the whole war (because she was stolen by Paris from her husband Menelaus), the theft of Briseis from Achilles by Agamemnon, the commander of the Greeks, is virtually the same crime. It means that Achilles sits petulantly on the side lines while the Greek army is brought to the point of collapse. This is the theme of the Iliad, not the siege of Troy, but the anger of Achilles. Briseis is therefore a pivotal player in the whole story, even though she only has the status of slave. It Homer’s work she is more a plot device than a fully rounded character, so it is timely that Pat Barker has created a richer life for her.

Before being captured by the Greeks, Briseis was a princess of the city of Lyrnessus. She lost her whole family; father, mother and brothers to the sword of Achilles, so to then be given to him as a war prize, was the ultimate horror. What Pat Barker’s book charts is the gradual softening of her feelings towards Achilles and their shared love for Achilles’ companion, Patrochlus.

The Iliad says little about Briseis, so Barker has to fill in the gaps, making her serve the warriors with wine each night, witness the plague that breaks out across the Greek camp and then help with the care of the wounded men carried from the field of battle. Because she is ever-present in the tent of Achilles, she is able to witness some of the key moments in the whole story. The anger of Achilles, the despair at the loss of Patroclus. She is also witness to the arrival of King Priam to beg Achilles for the return of his dead son Hector, and she is there at the sacrifices on the tomb of Achilles. By the time the book closes, she is pregnant with Achilles’ child, although that fact does not appear in any of the ancient stories. The Greek playwrights extended the lives of characters they found in Homer, and this tradition continues today.

Briseis is the ultimate example of Stockholm syndrome, where the captured start to side with their captors, but the great thing about this book is to finally give voice to the magnitude of her role in the whole history of the Greeks and their wars. It is a beautifully crafted book, rich with details that bring the characters and locations to life. Barker does a great job showing us the fragility of Briseis’ position, as slave and war prize. Better still, we also see her strength.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Penguin