‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker – Book Review

Blurb from Goodreads

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.

My Review

‘The Silence of the Girls’ is an utterly compelling read. It aims to tell the story of the typically voiceless women during the Trojan War by focusing the story primarily on the perspective of Briseis who was once nobility but during the war became Achilles’ slave.

And for the most part I believe it fulfils its aims.

The book doesn’t flinch from portraying the barbarity of war time and is filled with gory battlefield depictions and a lot of sexual violence. This doesn’t make for an easy read but it makes for a necessary one I believe.

So much of the time Greek heroes are romanticised and we forget their cruelty; we forget how in times of war cruelty and kindness are frequently bedfellows and this book explores that ideology to its fullest. I found it incredibly refreshing to read a book with such well rounded characterisations of these familiar mythic names: characters such as Briseis, Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon all had light and dark facets to their personalities and felt eminently human. I also thoroughly enjoyed the choices that Barker made regarding plot development and plot pacing, and even though I am quite familiar with the story of the Trojan War I was never once bored by a sense of inevitability or predictability. There was definitely a freshness and vitality to this interpretation.

There are however some choices with the narrative style that at times felt a little clunky…

For one the language style is rather harsh, modern; for me on occasion the book just jars a little with some of the turns of phrase chosen.

The other slightly jarring choice is when the narrative switches from Briseis’ first person perspective to Achilles’ third… I understand the aims of the author in trying to show the completeness of the war story but it does feel somewhat an unusual choice given that the title of the book is ‘The Silence of the Girls’. Also, it does happen somewhat haphazardly and as I was reading the perspective changes always momentarily pulled me out of the reading experience. However, the ending of the book does somewhat explain these perspective choices and its purpose, but for me there was something off in the execution of this ultimate aim.

Despite my minor misgivings, this is definitely a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in Greek mythology and makes for an interesting companion piece to The Iliad and also to Madeline Miller’s ‘The Song of Achilles’.

Four Stars

Read in March 2019

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4 thoughts on “‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker – Book Review

    1. No, I definitely preferred Circe. Miller to me got the emotion and pacing both spot on with Circe. I would actually draw more comparisons between Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls as they both directly focus on the Trojan War and giving agency to those female voices that Homer and others neglected. I know I’m biased in that I love reading Greek retellings but I think you should definitely give Barker a try, if anything just to see why it’s been so highly rated (eg shortlisted for the women’s prize for fiction).
      My favourite recent Greek retellings would be in order
      1. Circe
      2. House of Names by Colm Tóibín,
      3. The Song of Achilles by Miller,
      4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes,
      5. The Silence of the Girls by Barker.
      One I don’t rate at all is Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. I found that very dry and perfunctory.
      There are many more that are on my TBR as you can imagine… Yes I’m *slighlty* obsessed!

      Like

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