Summary: “Of course, the deaths of young men in battle are tragic. But that is not the worst fate.”
History tends to be kind to men because, until quite recently, we tended to write all of it. Hence the literature on war has emphasised the courage, camaraderie and sacrifice of the combatants, rather than the plunder and rape they have so often indulged in after the battles.
This pattern was set from the outset with the Iliad. It tells us that Briseis was Achilles’ slave taken when he stormed one of many Trojan cities. But the depth of the brutality of her experience is not explored. It is a mere footnote on the Iliad’s central concerns of Achilles’ rage – at Agamemnon’s affront to his honour, and at Hector’s killing of Patroclus in battle.
With The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker refocuses the story of the Iliad onto the civilian victims of war, the women and children raped, and then enslaved or murdered by the “heroes” of the Iliad. With this focus on violence against women, it is perhaps something of a fictional counterpart to The Five, Hallie Rubenhold’s extraordinary account of the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper.
In many ways this is a faithful version of the Iliad. The famous events, and some of the dialogue of that classic are all here. But the shift of focus of the narrative from Achilles to Briseis results in a wholly arresting and new work of literature. It is her unflinching descriptions of the horrors she and the other captured women and girls endure, and her cool assessments of the incidents and personalities she encounters, that forces us to think anew about this story.
The casualties of war are not distant memories to Briseis, but brothers, neighbours and a husband. The women reduced to chattel slavery by the war are not footnotes to the main story, but her friends, a last source of tenderness in the midst of all the cruelty and carnage.
War has made Briseis wise beyond her years, with any illusions, if she ever had them, about martial glory stripped away and replaced by a profound understanding of human nature in this nightmare. Briseis sees through the facades of “honour” and “prestige” to the truth of the combatants’ characters: Patroclus, in spite of everything, a kind man; Achilles, a warrior since childhood, now a traumatised bundle of rage; Agamemnon, the worst of the worst, a greedy venial despot who has “forgotten nothing and learned nothing,” as Briseis puts it.
I cannot recall being as consumed by a book since I first read Ernie O’Malley’s classic memoir of war, On Another Man’s Wound, when I was about 16 – and I have read many, many great books in the decades since.
The Silence of the Girls is an exquisitely written, unflinching and stunningly beautiful meditation on endurance amidst the horrors of war. It is quite simply a masterpiece.