“Great Achilles,” is how she begins her story. “Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’”
At the beginning of Barker’s story, Briseis and the other women of Lyrnessus have taken shelter from the Greek invasion in the citadel, with little hope that their male relatives will survive. From outside, they hear Achilles’s battle cry, “as inhuman as the howling of a wolf,” and they watch as the Greeks’ golden hero lays waste to their armies. Briseis observes Achilles kill her youngest brother with a spear with “fastidious precision,” then her husband, then her two older brothers. After the battle, the surviving women are inspected, with the most desirable taken as trophies by the Greeks. Briseis is claimed by Achilles. But after Agamemnon is forced to relinquish his own Trojan slave, he demands her for himself, sparking a crisis when Achilles subsequently refuses to fight.
With Briseis, Barker has a blank canvas from which to work. The great trick of The Silence of the Girls is that it fills in the borders of one character in literature while uncovering the vast gaps that persist in the rest of the Western canon. How many stories like this one remain to be told? It’s a question writers are considering more frequently. Madeline Miller’s stunning 2018 book, Circe, centers an entire novel around an ancillary character in The Odyssey, a witch goddess who fleetingly becomes the protagonist Odysseus’s lover. In England, the playwright Jeanie O’Hare has crafted a new production focused on Queen Margaret of Anjou, the character Shakespeare gave more lines to than any other woman he wrote.
The Silence of the Girls is the new song Briseis dreams of: a narrative that weighs what war means to women. The Iliad makes no space for how Briseis felt when she watched Achilles pull a spear from her youngest brother’s neck. Barker does (“For the first and only time in my life,” Briseis recounts, “I was glad my mother was dead”). Entire books have been written about the tragedy of Hector, “a martyr to loyalties, a witness to the things of this world, a hero ready to die for the precious imperfections of ordinary life,” as the classics professor James Redfield put it. But Barker, through Briseis, considers the more prolonged torture of Hector’s widow, Andromache, “dazed with grief,” whose infant son has been thrown from the walls of Troy and who’s given as a sex slave to the teenage son of Hector’s killer.
One of the most potent encapsulations of how differently history treats men and women comes when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the Greek camp to beg Achilles to return his son Hector’s body. On his knees, Priam says, “I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.” The moment is among the most celebrated and poignant entreaties in literature, and yet Briseis is unmoved. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do,” she thinks, observing the scene. “I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”