This last few months my reading has been very Iliad themed. First I read The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, about Achilles relationship with Patroclus. Then I read (two thirds) of The actual Iliad (reviews of half of it here in part 1 and part 2). Now I find myself reading The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. It’s The Iliad from the point of view of Achilles’ war prize Briseis. She who is the cause of the entire plot of The Iliad.
Briefly, Achilles tells the big boss Agamemnon to give back a girl he has taken as a war prize, because her Father has come with a ransom to beg for her to be returned. The Father happens to be a priest of Apollo, and with Agamemnon’s refusal, Apollo is reigning down death and destruction. Agamemnon concedes, but says he will now take Achilles war prize Briseis as compensation. Achilles says if he takes her, he won’t fight anymore. Achilles is their best fighter, so this is a serious threat. Briseis is returned to Achilles when he returns to the fighting after his good buddy, Patroclus is killed.
The little we know about Briseis from The Iliad includes that her Father, Mother, Husband, and three brothers died at the hands of Achilles. But that also her relationship with him is considered by both of them to be maybe more marriage-like, and Briseis grieves for Patroclus when he dies.
In The Silence of the Girls we get Briseis point of view from her life in the city of Lyrnessus, her witnessing the arrival of Achilles and the subsequent murder of all her family, her experience in Achilles’ house, the change to being Agamemnon’s slave, and her return to Achilles and situation after his death. (Think I’m ok with these plot reveals, as The Iliad is quite well known… ).
I really enjoyed reading about what the women were doing, while the men were hacking each other to death. It has a lot to say about the erasure of female voices in literature, though it doesn’t come across as preachy at all. And it puts the story of women at the heart of this retelling of The Iliad, and I really, really enjoyed that.
As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: “‘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.
I prioritised reading The Silence of the Girls because I’m going to a Manchester Literature Festival event with Pat Barker tonight! She is going to be in conversation with Kamila Shamsie, who wrote Home Fire that I also loved. I can’t wait!