Review: The Silence of the Girls ~ by Pat Barker
291 pages ~ Literary Fiction/Greek Mythology Retelling
2018~ Doubleday Books
Audio Narrated by Kristin Atherton and Michael Fox
10 hr 44 mins
Published by Random House Audio
Presented by Audible.com
My Rating: 5/5 ✰✰✰✰✰
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.
“Many of these songs I remember from my own childhood. As a small girl at home in my father’s house, I used to creep down to the courtyard when I was supposed to be in bed asleep and listen to the bards playing and singing in the hall. Perhaps, at that age, I thought all the stirring tales of courage and adventure were opening a door into my own future, though a few years later- ten, eleven years old, perhaps- the world began to close in around me and I realized the songs belonged to my brothers, not to me.”
Barker does something pretty brilliant in this book- she manages to simultaneously celebrate The Iliad (the original source of this story) and challenge it. Her challenge comes in the form of perspective because her story brings to light the thoughts/feelings/struggles/triumphs of the women in this story- who both A) played a crucial role in the politics and the emotion of the story, and B) whose perspectives were woefully left out of the original. However, her book also celebrates the Iliad. She gives you a sense of the majesty of this story and the complexity of its heroes. I honestly can’t say enough about how much I loved this book- it was a breath of fresh air, it was moving, emotional, honest, and beautifully written. Below were some of the high points for me:
- The connection to the Iliad- Barker is very careful to interject Briseis’ voice into Achilles’ story- Briseis never attempts to rewrite it or make it her own. She is very honestly telling the events from her own perspective- inserting her own thoughts and feelings while also commenting on the differences between her story and the romanticized legends of Achilles and the Trojan War.
“Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy…? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginable distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.”
- With this connection to the Iliad, we also see Achilles in a completely new light. He continues to be the brutal, ruthless, killing machine that we know, but in seeing his love for Patroclus and his connection to his mother, there is a new depth to him. Even his relationship with Briseis changes over the course of this story. They form a mutual respect and understanding of each other. It’s not loving, I wouldn’t even call it friendship, but it’s definitely a shared acceptance and protection.
- The everyday struggles and triumphs of the women and their day-to-day life in the camp was beautifully captured. The women like Briseis who have been captured and taken away from their homes to live as slaves in the Greek war camp find a magical way to cope with their reality. Through caring for the children, caring for the sick and wounded, preparing the dead for cremation, all preparing the food, the women in the camp find connection and purpose despite what they are forced to endure.
- Use of the Gods- There is not as much interaction with the Gods in this story as there is in The Iliad. In fact, Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is the only God these characters ever interact with. The subtle inclusion of the Gods allows for the possibility that some of these “curses” and “bargains” with said Gods could actually be in the minds of the characters rather than a reality.
- Narrative style- For the most part, the story is told in the first person by Briseis. It is as if you are sitting down with an old friend and she is telling you about the most horrific experiences of the life. This story is raw and unsentimental, unlike the romanticization we find in the Iliad. This story is coming from a person who has become immune to the horrors and the pain that she suffered. To her, it is just her life, not a heroic legend or fanciful tale. Briseis even poses questions for the reader. Questions that she knows the reader might have or questions that a friend might have in hearing her story.
“This man killed your brothers, he killed your husband, he burned your city, he destroyed every single thing you’d ever loved- and you were prepared to marry him? I don’t understand how you could do that?
“Perhaps that’s because you’ve never been a slave?”
Again, I can’t say enough about the beauty of this book. If you are a fan of Greek Mythology retellings, this is a must!
For more information on Pat Barker and her books, check her out on Goodreads