In an unplanned but entirely excellent book swap with my friend, S., I traded her Strike Your Heart for Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I think she got the better deal. Not that The Silence of the Girls is bad, it’s just… obvious.
In (another) retelling of Achilles in the Trojan War, this version is narrated, largely, by Achilles’ captured Trojan slave, Briseis, and what follows is exactly what you’d expect: some pointed scenes about how women get passed around as objects (both in war and outside of war), the brutality of patriarchy, the way women, under duress, will find one another and overcome all previous animosity in order to support and provide solidarity. It’s not that these themes are – at all – unimportant, it’s more that the whole thing reads exactly as you’d imagine the book pitch: “I want to tell the Achilles story from the perspective of the slave women,” and then cue a first year women’s studies feminist take on exactly that plot.
It seems an odd gripe. I think (if memory serves) part of my thesis talked about how important it is to hear history from the perspective of those unwritten, how the role of fiction is precisely to give voice to these purposefully forgotten actors. And I’m sure I meant it, and that I was right. It’s just that I suppose I hoped for something more imaginative, something richer. Maybe that’s it – Bresies never really comes alive in the book as anything other than this stand-in for women-objectified-women-traumatized. The closest we get is in the scenes exploring her ‘decision’ not to kill herself (when other women do), but even here it’s not so much that we learn her thinking or rationale in choosing life, more that she doesn’t kill herself and we are to extrapolate something about her character from that (in)decision.
You could argue that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is interesting, but it is so much better done in Madeline Miller’s truly brilliant Song of Achilles. Indeed, I might be inclined to like this one more, seeing it somehow as a fresh take on the familiar Trojan War story, had I not read Miller, but as it is, the Barker novel does not stand up well in comparison. I’m reluctant to recommend it even in you are an ardent fan of all things Apollo and myth and Hero. So glad – as always – for the book swap that introduces me to a book I wouldn’t have read otherwise, and glad here, to be able to suggest that this one can be one… you don’t need to read otherwise.