Pat Barker's take on the classic story of the Battle of Troy is told from the perspective of Briseis, the noble taken slave when Achilles sacks Lyrnessus. Consigned to life as a bed slave for Achilles, she is later taken from Achilles by Agamemnon, which in turn causes Achilles to stop fighting for the Greeks. In the tradition of classic epic poems like the Iliad, women and slaves are treated entirely as property - not as humans. By re-telling a classic from this previously unconsidered, almost inanimate, point of view Barker is able to shift away the dignity and majesty that normally tint classic or epic poems. Barker's retelling is not quite a reimagining, but she does a wonderful job of maintaining focus on the broken societies and individuals involved in the story, and of just how crude things would have been during the seige on Troy.
Barker does a superb job of describing the setting: a war camp set up between a battlefield, Troy, and the ocean. Each of these settings are essential to the themes which run through the book: the idyll and treasures of war, and Achilles' own divine connection to the ocean (his mother, Thetis, was a Neried - a sea nymph). Barker describes the war camp as something which straddles permanence, as a home for many soldiers and the supporting staff and slaves, and the temporary make-shift encampment. Her descriptive prose are never indulgent, but over the course of the book they beat out an immediate world. The use of small comments are often the quick assessing glances of characters gives the entire book a great sense of place.
Briseis experiences the world around her immediately, but the events and beats of the plot often have to come to her. Word is brought, or she sees the consequences of battles and political manoeuvres. Her situation inside the house and bedroom of Achilles offers some nice speculation about what we don't see in the original epic poems. This small scale, domestic focus carries heavily throughout the book, and brings a sense of intimacy to Achilles and his inner circle. It brings pangs of sympathy for Briseis' own struggles as a woman taken from her life, moved from nobility to slave, and as witness to relentless violence.
The result is a story that keeps its pace up right up until the 80-90% mark. Towards the end, things really drift off, and I couldn't get a clear sense if Barker was trying to wrap things up or leave them open. The Silence of the Girls breaks the strict narrative structure of the original epic source material, that attempting to break form makes sense. I just didn't get a sense of commitment to this idea, which so I found the ending a little disappointing.
I was worried that Briseis would remain a victim to circumstance. That as a woman and a slave, I would commit three hundred pages to someone simply experiencing and coping with the world. This is a poignant part of the story, and not one I would want to be glanced over. Barker acknowledges it but doesn't overdo it. At times our narrators fears feel a little repetitive, and without any real bite, but she's fleshed out. I am always wary of books which adopt a diary or confessional style, which this one does. However it doesn't get in the way.
At times the pragmatism and frankness of her writing leave me wanting more. I always wanted a little bit more presence, a bit more flesh on the bones. The story is told almost entirely from the first person perspective, and it feels a little constrained by that, at times. This is entirely a personal preference, and Barker's style is consistent throughout. It just grated on me.
This doesn't get in the way of exploring the world or the themes, however. Personal and violent trauma is explored carefully and with respect. We see Achilles, and other great characters portrayed with more humanity and dimensions that the typical archetypes they can become. From the opening sentence of the novel, "Great Achilles, brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles... how the epithets pile up", you know this is going to be tackled. And it is. The reimagining of a more human, faulted, prideful and unloved Achilles comes through.
The themes were interesting, but delivered a little plainly. Nothing struck me suddenly, and little specific details or phrasing stays with me. Perhaps the book is too human and not godlike or mythical enough for my personal taste. What the narrative or style lack is made up for easily in the sturdy telling of a classic story. 3⭐