Pat Barker’s 2018 novel The Silence of the Girls is a deeply uncomfortable read, but it’s meant to be. We’re used to seeing Achilles as a hero, not as a distant and monster-fied figure, feared even by other men. In popular culture, the story of Achilles is often romanticised: Brad Pitt’s version of him in the 2004 film Troy loves Briseis deeply, and Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles is another love story, this time between Achilles and Patroclus. In Barker’s version, by contrast, we are told early by Briseis that they all saw Achilles as a butcher. Her fear and revulsion for the situation she is in and what she has become are never allowed to be forgotten — Briseis herself will not let people forget. In the brief moments where the powerful men who surround her slip up and momentarily see her as a human in her own right, Briseis is always quick to take a sledgehammer to that moment and remind them of all that has been stripped from her. She is an object, a slave.
Achilles himself is distant, often unlikeable. Briseis presents him as emotionally stunted — an overgrown child who never learned how to manage his temper — and yet, in the glimpses we see of him from his own perspective, Achilles is revealed as more god than man, the disconnect from humanity that monsters him to his men a mere symptom of that. The moments when he is most human are when Briseis reminds him of his mother. His mother, the nymph Thetis, is ever-present in her absentia. She is simultaneously repulsed and heartbroken by her son’s mortality, and while he loves his mother deeply, he hates her too for leaving before he was ready for her to go; he conjectures at one point this is why he does not ever feel he fits properly into the world of men. The parallels Barker draws between Thetis and Briseis go beyond the smell of seawater in their hair that inspires such vulnerability in Achilles. In Thetis — forced in marriage a mortal who repulses her, who eventually manages to escape back to the sea only to be drawn back to land again and again because of the mortality of her child — we see that even as a goddess, she is a pawn to be used by men, and has as much control over her own life as the slave women.
As the novel ends, while Briseis is found some level of security and protection (by the arrangements of men, rather than through any agency of her own, because she has no agency of her own), Briseis observes the women of Troy being distributed among the Greeks, and the novel is brought full circle. Barker allows us to glimpse inner lives, pragmatisms, coping mechanisms and the community the girls and women try and build from the scraps of their old lives — even though in the presence of men, they remain silent. The Silence of the Girls is a difficult book to read, but well worth it precisely because of this. How many other women are being displaced and suffering through this as a result of the ongoing wars right now? The women's tale is far more universal, even while the tale of Achilles is eternal; that is just one story, while the silence of women and girls is ongoing to the present day.