In Pat Barker’s latest novel (out this month in paperback), the story of the Iliad is reanalysed from the point of view of one of the original works’ most seemingly minor characters, Briseïs. The great Greek general Achilles, encamped by the besieged city of Troy, is forced to return the Trojan woman he has captured as a prize; angered, he takes instead the captive Briseïs from his comrade Agamemnon.
What is interesting about her character in the Iliad is the disparity between such a brief appearance and her narrative importance, as the unwitting cause of Agamemnon and Achilles’ fateful feud. Barker’s text uses this paradox by giving Briseïs an active voice, while still maintaining the passivity of Homer’s original character.
The exploration of alternative narratives of ancient texts is hardly new. In the same year as Barker’s book, Madeleine Miller returned with Circe, a tale similarly torn from its original context in Homer’s other epic, the Odyssey, and given to a minor female character. Intertextuality played an important role in ancient literature; long before Miller or Barker, writers such as Ovid were already giving voice to ancient heroines.
However, what elevates the modern novelists’ works above mere fan- fiction is their stature as impressive texts in their own right. The Silence of the Girls is a novel which, though enhanced by prior knowledge of the Iliad, could very well stand without it. Such books are important transitions for those unfamiliar with, but interested in, the Classical world, and we owe it to writers such as Barker who rejuvenate ancient texts without stripping them of their original greatness.
Something I didn’t particularly enjoy when I first started reading was the mixture of colloquial dialogue with more formal speech, which seemed jarring considering the high verse of Homer. However, this did not detract from the work, and it developed nicely in the text alongside the normal and commonplace stories which the tale explored. This isn’t supposed to be elevated verse, but sharp and acces- sible prose.
The stories which are explored are not those of the god-like warriors, but of the people who fade into the background in the original texts. A particularly noteworthy moment is the list of Achilles’ victims as one finds in Homer, but here they are supplemented not just with the causes of the deaths, but also personal stories from the women connected to the dead men. Such elements create an appreciable poignancy for modern readers which Bronze-Age battles can never provide.
The best thing about Barker’s novel is its realism; she does not try to pretend that, because Briseïs has a narrative, she has any control over it.
The book maintains all of the brutality of the original, whilst expanding on the stories of the marginalised characters. Despite the antiquity of the original text, The Silence of the Girls manages to be fresh, exciting, and moving. It is versatile enough to be read by those with knowledge of the Iliad, as well as by those unacquainted with the ancient source – and read it should be.