The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published by Doubleday Books on September 4, 2018
my rating: ★★.5
Goodreads avg: 3.88 (as of 2019-05-22)
Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website
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.
I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.
I had quite high hopes for The Silence of the Girls, which unfortunately just weren’t met. The best way to describe my reading experience is resounding apathy. Feeling apathetic whilst reading about a woman taken into slavery during war seems wrong, but here we are. I’d attribute this to a few things: the fact that I hadn’t read The Iliad before, the standoffish way I felt the story was narrated, and the fact that the POVs were not limited to Briseis, or even only to women.
I mentioned my lukewarm reading experience to Rachel, who noted that she wasn’t sure how much this book would hold for someone who wasn’t very familiar with The Iliad. While I knew bits and pieces of the story, my knowledge was really limited to its portrayal in The Song of Achilles as well as whatever I had picked up through osmosis throughout my life. As such, this was less of a retelling for me and more, well, a telling. On its own, I’m not sure the story stands as well as it would if I had more of a background with its greater context.
So we spent the nights curled up like spiders at the centre of our webs. Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies.
Briseis herself is quite terse throughout her narration. While she slips into emotional points, I found myself feeling untouched for most of the book. I’m certain others may disagree with me here, and I definitely think that this is quite a subjective opinion on my part. And I understand how this can be demonstrative of what she’s gone through — trauma can make or break us, and it’s clear that the Trojan women must put up walls in order to make it through the war without breaking entirely. I just wish I could’ve seen this in a way that didn’t make me feel distant from her as well.
Lastly, I was really drawn to this story as giving a voice to women traditionally silenced. So much of the focus of history is on the heroism of men and very little is on the women who they have been supported by, or who they trod on. And yet more than once the point of view is handed to Achilles, the very man who is actively oppressing Briseis. Whatever reason this may have been for, I didn’t feel that it enhanced the story for me. Quite the opposite, the first time it happened I felt jerked out of whatever immersion I was experiencing and had to reread a bit to ensure it was really happening. Each time thereafter it felt out of place and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like had the book kept its focus on Briseis, or at least stuck to the perspectives of the women.
Now he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains.
Criticisms aside, I can see why others enjoyed this. I can certainly see why it was included on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I wish that my experience with it had been better, but alas. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I do recommend trying it out if it seems to interest you. Particularly if you have more of a history with Greek mythology than I do! Hopefully my next pick off the Women’s Prize list treats me a bit better.
More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
The Silence of the Girls
8 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls [review]”
I never had much luck with retellings or reinterpretations if I wasn’t familiar enough with the original story, I think I would’ve been in the same place as you with this one. I liked some of the author’s other novels I read years ago, I thought she was a great writer. This one just sounds very different.
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It’s really interesting that your unfamiliarity with The Iliad might have been alienating for you with The Silence of the Girls; I read this immediately after finishing The Iliad for the first time, and thought it also suffered for having read them so close together. The plot is very much the same, so the biggest draw for me was the change in perspective, and which was somewhat overshadowed by my disappointment with the inclusion of Achilles’s POV. I thought his inclusion made an interesting point about how power and history shape whose story gets told and who becomes no more than a footnote, but I wish that point had been made another way because Achilles was not doing anything for me in this book.
Love your thoughtful review!
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Thank you! I’m sorry it didn’t resonate well with you either. I think it would have been more interesting had she incorporated some other women in, but I do understand Achilles’ inclusion to some extent. I just wish it had done more for me!
I totally understand why this didn’t work for you! For me its huge strength was its characterization – I have read approximately one million Iliad retellings and I’ve never been as impressed with a modern interpretation of the characters as I was here, especially Achilles, and while I wouldn’t say that I LOVED his POV, its inclusion is one of those things that I imagine would be more rewarding for Iliad fans than the average reader. Also I wouldn’t feel bad about a slavery story leaving you apathetic because this is exactly how I felt about Remembered and Praise Song – the premise means nothing if the author can’t follow through with good execution imo.
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Ah, that’s a great point! If I was more invested in the characterizations rather than looking at them out of context, it definitely would have helped. And that does make me feel better. I still need to read Remembered (and like 3 or 4 others lmaoo).
I read your review and then had to go work, but NOW I can finally comment.
As you said, I had the exact same thoughts, though less eloquently written. I really love the way you write your reviews! It was so frustrating to have Achilles have so much of a voice in this book. As you said, maybe if I’d read The Iliad it would be more interesting, but as a story by itself, it did not hold to me. I think I expected also lots more adventure?
And Briseis is an alright narrator, and I don’t particularly mind cold, unfeeling narrators if they’re done right. And it’s understandable that she builds such a wall to protect herself, but even before things went really badly (if one can say that…), a few hours before they were taken, I was already not really feeling that much of a connection to her. I’d have loved to see the POV of the 15-year-old girl that Apollo demands is returned, for example, or Achilles’ mother.
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Omg thank you, that means so much! I feel like my reviews have been getting a lot better recently, so that’s validating to hear ❤
I also expected lots more adventure! I think you said this, but had the narration itself been more compelling, I wouldn't have minded the more slow-moving plot. But since I also did not connect to Briseis at all, I just… didn't care. I do agree I'd have preferred one of the other women, or even her connecting with them more!
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