Pat Barker’s “The Silence of the Girls” joins the ranks of recent books by women that address the classical era, including Madeline Miller’s “Circe,” Mary Beard’s “SPQR” and Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s “Odyssey.” Barker’s novel, a retelling of Homer’s “Iliad” from the perspective of Briseis — a princess whose capture leads to her historical place as Achilles’s “bed-girl” — not only charts slightly different territory but also raises the stakes for all historical writing in that it reminds us to do as Abigail Adams urged her husband: “Remember the ladies.”
Wait, you say: Haven’t we been remembering them for a while, now? Scores of excellent books have been written about women recently, from Dawn Tripp’s “Georgia” (O’Keeffe) to “White Houses” by Amy Bloom (Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok) to the upcoming “The Age of Light” by Whitney Scharer (Lee Miller).
Most of the books written about historical women focus on the famous ones, who are also the most privileged, which leaves underserved women often overlooked. A small percentage of books illuminate the lives of those trapped in class structures or who wear kitchen smocks instead of embroidered corset covers.
In her World War I-era Regeneration trilogy (including “The Ghost Road,” which won the 1995 Man Booker Prize), Pat Barker upended expectations about who a hero might be. The character of Billy Prior was lower class, bisexual and pro-labor rights. In “The Silence of the Girls,” Barker does something similar with women on the home front. Briseis was once a queen, but the only remnant of that status in the book is a purloined embroidered tunic that belonged to her father.
While all the “big names” appear — Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, Hector, Helen, Patroclus, Thetis — most of Briseis’s time is spent waiting to be used sexually or in the medical tents attempting to learn something. Her former world of jewels and unguents has dissipated into foul battle smells (blood, brackish seawater, stale roasted meats) and garments of torn rags. A pawn exchanged between powerful men, Briseis learns to keep her head down and her eyes dry. Only once does she falter, when she must leave Achilles for Agamemnon: “Achilles cried as I was taken away. He cried, I didn’t. Now, years later, when none of it matters any more, I’m still proud of that. But I cried that night.”
That sentence ends Part I; in Part II, narration from Briseis alternates with chapters from the perspective of Achilles, as he moves toward his fateful fight with Hector of Troy. These passages are as well-written as anything Barker has done before, but she saves her most affecting prose for Briseis. When King Priam arrives to collect his son’s body, he remarks that he does what no man has done before, as he kisses Achilles’ hands, “the hands of the man who killed my son.” Briseis, standing nearby, thinks: “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”
“The Silence of the Girls” is a novel that allows those who were dismissed as girls — the women trapped in a celebrated historical war — to speak, to be heard, to bear witness. In doing so, Barker has once again written something surprising and eloquent that speaks to our times while describing those long gone.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Pat Barker. 304 pp. $27.95.