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Giving a voice to those who were – and, at times still are – the spoils of war

Pat Barker has long celebrated ‘ordinary’ people who are swept up in the making of history – which, sadly, is often the history of conflict. She does not forget that the lives of the untold millions matter, even if we don’t know their names

In this book, she goes for the jugular of very ancient conflicts indeed – the story told in The Iliad – we know the names of various kingly and warrior characters, but the women are few and far between. Helen, wife of Menelaus, captured by Paris,(did she run or was she abducted?) is probably the most recognisable name, reduced to that face that launched a thousand ships – as long long wars between Greece and Troy ensued

In this wonderful book The Silence of the Girls her central voice, the person whose story is followed, Is Briseis. Wife of a king, who was one of Troy’s allies (and of course, Briseis had no say in her choice of husband) when her husband’s kingdom is sacked by the Greeks – particularly Achilles, she becomes part of his booty. Her husband, her brothers, and all the males are automatically killed – including boy children. This is also the fate of women who have children in the womb – these might grow up to avenge their fathers in the fullness of time.

Other women are spoils, like material goods, to be shared by the victors. The high born may be the gift to commanders and kings, and the best that can be hoped for is to find favour. Otherwise, the women are there to be ‘enjoyed’ by the many.

Chryseis rescued from Agamemnon Joseph-Marie Vien circa 1780/1785

This is indeed a brutal and a harrowing book, but Barker does not just leave Briseis and others as just brutalised victims. Women lived through this kind of dire history, still having to find a way to make their own lives matter.

More than the story of battling kings, – Priam, Agamemnon – bloody warrior heroes – Hector, Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus – it is the women, the powerless, the ones without the fine heroic lays devoted to their stories – who occupy the foreground here. And Barker makes me believe that these, who have come to us only as names, might indeed have been truly as she imagines them.

Recounting Priam, king of Troy, in supplication for the return of the broken and humiliated body of his son, Briseis contrasts the power a defeated king may still wield, with the lives, the lack of power, of the women, even the most powerful, who are objects of ownership, in her society:

I do what no man before me has ever done. I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:

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

She does of course not flinch from how these human spoils of war were treated – the women who ‘belonged’ to the vanquished were there to slake the sexual thirst of the army just as captured wine and livestock were there to slake their appetite for food and drink – but she does not focus on the blow by blow, the awful and graphic details of their treatment by the conquering army. How, in this world, did these women live.?What were their thoughts, their feelings, how did they adapt, how connect, how survive? Victims of war – but also individuals with histories – and also perhaps, desires for a future, perhaps even an imagination for the ending of endless war.

Briseis mourning Patroclus. Léon Cogniet 1794-1880

I recommend this, despite its awful subject matter, without reservation. Whilst steeped in the physical reality of those ancient times (she is marvellously visceral about what a battle encampment might have been like) the present, and the still far from equal lives of girls and women, in some parts of the world more obviously than in others, knocked insistently in my thoughts.

Books like this are wondrously important, wondrously imaginative, wondrously laying out myth and reality together

For those who know the story of the Iliad, repetition in this review would be unnecessary – but, more importantly, for those who don’t spoilers should not be revealed.

However, I cannot avoid this rather wonderful ‘preview opener’ a quote from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain’ which Barker quotes before her own novel begins :

You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask….”With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines…. “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon the King of men and great Achilles” And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war”

I received this as a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

The Silence of the Girls UK
The Silence of the Girls USA