This time around, the Women’s Prize for Fiction judges surprised readers by advancing both Circe and The Silence of the Girls into the shortlist. This decision disappointed many Women’s Prize for Fiction enthusiasts who didn’t expect to see two Greek mythology retellings among the final six novels. However, while I’m at peace with both their inclusions, Pat Baker’s take on The Illiad left me feelings meh – for me, this paled in comparison to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.
Set during the final stages of the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls is the story of Briseis, the Queen of Lyrnessus and other Trojan women who are being held captive by the Greeks. After Achilles’s army plundered Lyrnessus, one of Troy’s neighbouring kingdoms, the Greeks had bestowed Briseis to Achilles as his war prize, forcing Briseis to become his concubine. So now Briseis, just like other war spoils, must do everything to please men who slew their families.
The Silence of the Girls is contemplative of the plight of these enslaved women. Even though Briseis doesn’t realize it until Agamemnon seizes her from Achilles, being Achilles’ concubine is actually one of the better options in a battlefield where the women’s survival is dependent on victors’ whims. Baker never flinches from the savagery these slaves had to endure – women less fortunate (= less noble) than Briseis were communal property to be used as the soldiers pleased. But while Briseis bears witness to all these barbarities, including her trials, what we get from her in place of rage is resigned acceptance, and I didn’t expect that passivity. I suppose it was Briseis’s survival strategy, however, I felt that the story would have been more compelling if Baker had given more room for other slaves’ POVs.
One of the major criticisms The Silence of the Girls (which is billed as a feminist Iliad by The Guardian) has faced is its focus on the men. Apart from Briseis’s world being entirely consumed by Achilles, there are a few chapters which are told from Achilles’s perspective, and I’m split about it. On one side, this shift in the narrative makes the story jarring. On the other, it also subtly reminds us that men’s actions control the story.
Baker’s use of modern profanity is another minor quibble I have about this novel. In certain instances, this made the dialogue feel out of place. Having said that, however, I don’t regret spending time reading The Silence of the Girls, which is, sadly, the biggest compliment I can pay it! 3 stars.