Writers and artists have recast the myths for centuries: indeed, there seems to be a Myth-of-the-Month club among novelists. Last year we had Colm Toibin’s House of Names, a competent retelling of the Oresteia, and David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a retelling of Medea (on my TBR). This year we’ve seen Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica, an anthology of reimagined myths with allusions to Ovid (clever but uneven), Will Boast’s Daphne (Y.A.-ish), and Orange Prize winner Madeline Miller’s popular Circe (currently 50% off at Barnes and Noble, by the way).
And now the Booker Prize-winning Pat Barker has joined their ranks with The Silence of the Girls, a brilliant retelling of the Iliad from a woman’s perspective. The narrator is Briseis, Achilles’ intelligent captive mistress, formerly a princess. But some scenes are shown from Achilles’s point-of-view, narrated in the third person.
It begins with Briseis’s derisive musings on the epithets associated with 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.”
Before her city fell to the Greeks—a city near Troy—Briseis was the wife of King Mynes. Now she is Achilles’s prize, and serves him dinner and has sex with him. (At least he’s quick.)
Another slave, Chyrseis, the daughter of a priest of Apollo, suffers horribly as the prize of Agamemnon, a rapist. When Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis to her father, he decides to snatch another prize and takes Briseis from Achilles. And so Achilles sulks in his tent and refuses to fight, and Briseis often sees him running on the beach in full armor. But as the Greeks lose ground and hundreds die, the selfishness of the rage of Achilles becomes more apparent to Briseis, who cares for the wounded and dying every day in the hospital tent.
Finally Achilles goes back to war, after the death of his best friend Patroclus, who dressed in Achilles’ armor on the battlefield and got himself killed. We are sorry for Patroclus, a good friend of Briseis, but Briseis’s sharp observations on the pointless war and the silent sufferings of women are the mainspring of the novel. Briseis has no control over her fate, even when she returns to Achilles, though they do become friends.
Near the end, Briseis’s bitter observations of the Trojan War resonate.
What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
A remarkable, lucid and disturbing novel. I can’t predict these things, but perhaps it is a modern classic.