forty three

Sometimes there’s a book written where the idea is so brilliant and yet so blindingly obvious…that it is genius: The Silence of the Girls is The Iliad and war more generally, told from the point of view of the women/slaves captured and kept in the camp of the Greeks, mainly centring on Achilles’ camp.

The women are trophies of war, looted and handed out among the men to be used as they will. There is no attempt to dress up the brutality of their situation, the imagery and language is frank and raw. These women stay “home” while the men leave and fight their battles, push the front up to the walls of Troy and fall back again, deal with the politics and the plotting and the death of comrades in arms…and when they come back to camp, weary, injured, viciously wrathful, lustful they take it out on the women, some of whom are frighteningly young.

The story is ‘told’ mainly in the mind/thoughts of Briseis, abducted wife of King Myles. She is initially Achilles ‘prize’ before being ‘won’ by Agamemnon, in a contest seen by many of the men as unfair. Eventually she is returned to Achilles. This ‘great warrior’ has for his part, been sulking at this wrong done to him and refused to fight. A blow to the Greek army who begin to lose ground and men in his absence. Achilles most deeply explored and most touching relationship is with Patroclus a childhood friend and trusted right-hand man…indeed there are several allusions to a physical love that may exist between them. Only when his friend is killed in battle is Achilles driven to return to the fray.

Patroclus is also the only male that shows Briseis any semblance of humane treatment and as such, she too is saddened by his death. But also horrified at the deranged behaviour of Achilles in his vengeful butchering of Hector and his repeated disrespecting of Hector’s remains beneath the walls of Troy and the eyes of Hector’s father, King Priam, all of which Achilles used as the excuse not to put Patroclus on his final pyre giving him his rightful send off. The clandestine visit of Priam to Achilles, to beg for the return of his son’s body, is witnessed by Briseis. Priam extends his brave, foolhardy visit to sleep a few hours and leave at dawn. Briseis initially conceived of this as a way to smuggle herself out with the king who has been guaranteed safe passage to Troy but interestingly turns back, returning to Achilles’ house.

The writing is first rate, the story compelling and fascinating and the book heartily recommended.

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