Book Review

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

the silence of the girls

I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing around the walls…

When her city falls to the Greeks, led to victory by the god-like warrior Achilles, Briseis’s old life is shattered. Abducted and shipped to the Greek camp on the battleground at Troy, she goes from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to Achilles as a prize of honour. She’s not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long, bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters.

As told in The Iliad, the Trojan War was a quarrel between men – over Helen, stolen from her home and spirited to Troy, a voiceless female icon of male desire. But what of the women in this story, silenced by their fates? What words did they speak when alone with each other, in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?

In this magnificent novel of the Trojan War, Pat Barker summons the voices of Briseis and her fellow women to tell this mythic story anew, foregrounding their experiences against the backdrop of savage battle between men. One of the great contemporary writers on war and its collateral damage, Pat Barker here reimagines the most famous of all wars in literature, charting one woman’s journey through the chaos of the Greek encampment, as she struggles to free herself and to become the author of her own story.

The tale of the Trojan War is one that needs little introduction.  Often told from the perspective of Achilles, Agamemnon, and other, notably male, participants, it’s a story of warfare and conquest.  The glory of the Heroes and those favoured by the Greek Pantheon, the camaraderie of soldiers, and the events of the battlefield are well known, and yet so few characters in this tale have been given the opportunity to tell their version of it.  In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker gives Briseis the chance to speak out and tell her own story.

Briseis was married to Mynes, son of the King of Lyrnessus, until the city was sacked by Achilles.  With the men and boys murdered (so that they can’t later seek revenge), the women are taken captive.  Those with status (and / or beauty) are considered prizes to be award to those who have proven themselves in the field.  Within hours, Briseis is relegated from royalty to “it”, no longer considered human by those who “own” her – in this case, Achilles.

Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up.  We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.

With Briseis taken to the encampment from which the Greeks lay siege to Troy, Barker brings to life the reality of war, although the reader sees very little of the actual warfare.  Instead, the reader is restricted with Briseis to the camp, which, given the length of the siege, has now been built up with more permanent accommodation than “camp” suggests.  I think that it’s easy to forget or overlook the practicalities of maintaining such a camp, and Barker brings this this to life without bogging down the story in the minutiae of camp management.  But it does highlight the realities of the daily grind, from the risks of disease and plague spread by vermin to tending to those soldiers injured in battle.

As well as the brutality of war, the inhumane treatment of Briseis and the other women is brought to life, and, fair warning, this novel does include incidents of sexual assault, although most of it occurs off-page.  Briseis’s role becomes that of a prize to be traded and bartered in the ongoing standoff between Achilles and Agamemnon, and Barker makes some poignant observations about the objectification of women.  The opening – in which Lyrnessus is taken by the Greeks – is incredibly powerful, but after this, I felt that much of Briseis’s focus was on Achilles, and that her own story was a little overshadowed by the usual suspects.  As a slave, she doesn’t have much of a life of her own to discuss, but the majority of the novel still revolves around Achilles, whose name is mentioned 684 times (according to the search function on my Kindle) – approximately twice per page.

I think that some familiarity with the story of the Trojan War is necessary to get the most out of this novel, although it’s not necessary to have read The Iliad.  While I enjoyed this as a retelling of the Trojan War (and I did enjoy it – it’s an entertaining tale from an unusual perspective, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of adaptations of Greek mythology) I did feel that the focus was too much on the men.

The Silence of the Girls was published in 2018, and has recently been released in paperback.  It has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced on 5th June.

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