The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker. (Doubleday, 291 pages, $27.95.)
Don’t be fooled by the title of this book, which like so many flashy new novels contains the word “girls.” “Silence of the Girls” is not a mystery, and it most certainly is not a romance. Rather, it’s British writer and Man Booker Prize winner Pat Barker’s retelling of Homer’s “The Iliad” by Briseis, a Trojan queen captured and enslaved by the Greek warrior Achilles after he slaughters her family (as she watches) during the Trojan War.
As in “The Iliad,” she soon captures the eye of King Agamemnon, who takes her from Achilles. Achilles then falls into an epic temper tantrum, refusing to help the Greeks fight the Trojans, who make bloody headway in his absence. When Achilles’ stubbornness leads to the death of his friend and lover, Patroclus, and then he finally gets Briseis back, he rejoins the fight. Like Helen of Troy, Briseis is “the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it — in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight.”
Barker turns the myth on its head, showing how the tale of love and courage that is one of the foundations of Western civilization is an inglorious, corpse-strewn story soaked in hubris and blood, one largely built on physical and sexual violence against women and children. For men, too, the glory rings hollow.
In one almost unreadable chapter, Briseis names a number of young men Achilles has killed and describes in graphic, chilling detail exactly how they died — one of the most powerful indictments of war you’ll ever encounter in a work of fiction. “Silence” is a brilliant, jarring tale, and one with many a disturbing echo for our own times.
Sex Money Murder
By Jonathan Green. (W.W. Norton, 413 pages, $27.95.)
In the final pages of “Sex Money Murder,” Jonathan Green asks his two protagonists why they agreed to speak extensively with him about their lives in the titular gang from the Soundview projects of the Bronx.
Emilio Romero, who once commanded the gang under the street name Pipe, said he wanted people to understand that he and his friends aren’t animals. “Yes, we sold crack and we killed people, but I only played the hand I was dealt. I had moms, sisters who I loved. I want people to know that anyone caught up in gang life is a human being,” he told Green.
His friend Suge added, “We want people to know that the streets don’t love you. They never did.”
A journalist, Green spent years reporting the book. He interviewed the gang members, the cops who worked the project and the cases, FBI agents and prosecutors. He pored over voluminous court and criminal records. He watched hours of forensic video from murder scenes. I’ve seen a share of the same material and characters as a courthouse journalist, and Green’s account reads true.
The writer describes the rise and fall of the SMM gang as it coincided with the crack epidemic in the housing projects in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Details are abundant but not to the point of distraction or incredulity.
The book opens with a point-blank killing on Thanksgiving Day during the annual, and previously peaceful, holiday football game in the heart of Soundview. The murder, ordered on a lie by jailed SMM leader Peter “Pistol Pete” Rollock, led to the inexorable end of the group’s smothering enterprise.
Green describes not just the gang members but the tenacity and humanity of investigators and a key prosecutor. The best parts were the details of the lives of all involved, where they came from, their personal lives, how they interacted, where they landed. There were moments of compassion and ultimately surprises in the fates of the characters.
This is no tale, however, of triumph over adversity. The lives of the gangsters had a grinding aimlessness in a cycle of drug dealing, violence and prison. At times, I wished for a stronger narrative pull or a strand of hope to get me through the book. As hard as it was to keep moving forward, knowing the ending would be harsh, I ultimately wondered how it must have felt to live that way.