In Homer’s Iliad Briseis, though once queen of Lyrnessus, barely counts as even a minor character. The captured Trojan “awarded” to Achilles, then claimed by Agamemnon, she’s at most a plot device to explain why Achilles refuses to fight during a crucial part of the siege of Troy. But in Pat Barker’s retelling of the epic, The Silence of the Girls (Doubleday, $27.95), Briseis is fully realized as an observant, angry, and engaging character. Flouting the patriarchal culture’s dictate that “silence becomes a woman,” Briseis tells her own story, and it’s not the same one Homer told. Where the original version glorified death, for instance, Briseis is interested in lives, and her narrative is full of psychologically astute portraits of both women and men. She sees clearly that Agamemnon is a liar and a brute, but, though Achilles is the one who killed her husband and brothers, Briseis comes to understand how he’s been deeply hurt by his mother’s early abandonment of him, and shows us the angry, lonely little boy he is at heart. The novel is full of such unexpected and tender moments.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker