Fictionalizing ancient stories and myths seems to be popular now. I have read a few of these novels, including The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s novel about the Trojan War. That novel focused on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Although The Silence of the Girls is also partially about them, it is from a point of view heretofore unexamined, that of the Trojan women taken as slaves by the Greeks during the war. It is narrated mostly by Briseis.
Depending upon how well you know your Iliad, you may remember that Briseis is the woman awarded to Achilles who is later taken away by Agamemnon when he is forced to give up Chryseis. It is Achilles’s forced forfeiture of Briseis that leads him to sulk in his tent while the other Greeks are being slaughtered.
The novel begins with the fall of the Trojan city Lyrnessus, of which Briseis is the young queen. Achilles is called “the butcher” by the Trojans, and the women wait in fear when the citadel falls, knowing their boys will be murdered along with the pregnant women, and girls as young as nine will be raped and enslaved. Briseis is awarded to Achilles, whom she hates and fears.
As the story of the war progresses, Barker builds a nuanced portrait of Achilles, his anger at Agamemnon, his Oedipal relationship with his goddess mother Thetis, his friendship with Patroclus. Although Achilles is not a sympathetic character, Briseis eventually becomes conflicted about him.
This is an interesting and affecting novel. It is completely unlike the only other novel I have read by Barker, but it makes me want to continue seeking out her books.
The Song of Achilles
House of Names
I know I’ve talked about this before, but I find it interesting to see what the blurb writer finds to comment about a book versus the book itself. In the case of Toby’s Room, the blurb says something about a family torn apart by war. Well, World War I begins well into the novel, and the family is fairly well torn apart already.
The novel begins in 1912 when, in a weekend break from Slade, where Elinor is an art student, her relationship with her older brother Toby undergoes a shocking change. She and Toby have always been close, but they have difficulty closing the gap after this incident.
Later, shortly after the war begins, the family receives a telegram stating that Toby is missing, presumed dead. Elinor feels there is something not right about the letters she receives from his commanding officer and the chaplain. Letters to her friend Kip, who served with Toby, receive no answer. Elinor asks her friend Paul, who is home wounded, to help her find out what happened.
That makes the book sound like a mystery, but it isn’t. It is more about Elinor’s unresolved feelings for her brother, and latterly about the horrors of war.
Although Toby’s Room is a sequel to Barker’s Life Studies, and I have not read the first book, I felt myself immersed in this fully realized world. This is another situation, like with The Quality of Mercy, where I was reading the novel for my Walter Scott prize project and chose not to read the first one. Unlike The Quality of Mercy, though, I don’t think my not having read the first book affected my appreciation of the second. Although I do wish the Walter Scott prize judges would stop putting sequels on their short list, I enjoyed Toby’s Room. It examines serious issues while still capturing our attention.
The Quality of Mercy
The Stranger’s Child