The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

‘“Silence becomes a woman.”’

Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying. We sat on the shady veranda and contemplated it for a moment and then suddenly burst out laughing, both of us together – not just laughing either, whooping, screeching, gasping for breath, until, finally, the men turned to stare at us and Tecmessa stuffed the hem of her tunic into her mouth to gag herself.

The Trojan War, probably the most famous war in literature. The story told in The Illiad. The story, as Barker puts it in her epigraph (taken from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain), of a fight between Achilles and Agamemnon over ‘a girl’. Briseis: Mynes’ wife, stolen from Lyrnessus as a war trophy and given to the man who killed her husband and brothers – Achilles.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

Barker takes the story from the men and gives it to the women. She allows those long silenced by literature a voice – and what a voice. Briseis is no nonsense, confident, intelligent, blunt. She moves between Achilles’ hut and the women’s camp detailing what she sees, hears, and the things to which she’s subjected. Achilles rapes her, of course – ‘He fucked as quickly as he killed, and for me it was the same thing’ – but it’s after Briseis arrives at Achilles’ bed having been in the sea that he goes wild:

…there was immense passion; passion, but no tenderness. He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me. One moment, he was grinding me into the dust, the next, clinging on to me, as if afraid I might suddenly disappear.

Achilles has mummy issues. He’s also cocky and petulant, beautiful and elegant. He’s loyal to Patroclus, his friend from childhood, but at loggerheads with Agamemnon.

By handing the story to the women, Barker humanises Achilles and his fellow warriors. They are arrogant and spoiled with no qualms about taking anything they like whether that’s cities, finery or women. While Achilles’ prowess on the battlefield is shown, so are its consequences. From the systematic rape of the women – many of whom Briseis gets to know – to the goods that have been looted and turn up at unexpected moments: Briseis’ father’s tunic worn by Myron; the bride-gift necklace given by Briseis’ father to her mother and then placed around Briseis’ own neck by Odysseus.

Perhaps more importantly though, Barker wrenches one of the key canonical texts from the grasp of men – throwing shade at Roth along the way – and claims it for the women who’ve been ignored for centuries. At one point, when Briseis is serving wine she ponders why the men have her doing so. She concludes, ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men’. With The Silence of the Girls Barker’s carved meaning into literature, messages addressed to women – these are our stories to claim and to tell – and to men – we’ll be silent no longer, literature doesn’t belong to you.

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