The classics are experiencing a feminist revolution. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey—the first to be written by a woman—was published to great acclaim at the end of 2016. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, a contemporary reworking of Antigone, won the 2017 Women’s Prize. And American author Madeline Miller has just published Circe, her second novel based on classical characters. Joining this group is the award-winning British novelist Pat Barker (The Regeneration Trilogy, Toby’s Room), whose 14th novel, The Silence of the Girls, is a reimagining of one of the key episodes in the Iliad, told from the perspective of a captured queen living in the Greek army camp during the final weeks of the Trojan War.
Briseis was the queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms when her city was sacked and her husband and brothers were killed. A prize of battle, she becomes the property of Achilles, and she lives in the women’s quarters but is available to him as his concubine and slave. When King Agamemnon demands Briseis for his own, Achilles relinquishes her but, as a show of resistance, refuses to fight the Trojans any longer. In Barker’s retelling, Briseis finds herself torn between the two men, helpless but also uniquely positioned to observe the power struggle whose outcome will decide the fate of the ancient world.
The Iliad concerns a war fought over a woman, and women play a major role in the epic poem as nurses, wives and, of course, unwilling sex slaves. Yet the lack of women’s voices in the original text is deafening. In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis is the master of the narrative, telling her story in counterpoint to Achilles, becoming her own subject rather than his object. Her voice is wryly observant and wholly cognizant of the cost that she and other women have paid for the violence and abuses of war perpetrated by men. Barker’s retelling of some of the most famous events of the Iliad feels strangely relevant to today—displaced peoples, war refugees, abandoned women and children, sexual violence—and assures us that women’s voices will be silent no longer.