BOOK REVIEW: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

In recent years, we have seen many niche interpretations of classic Greek mythology. In particular, many writers have taken on the immense responsibility of bringing life to marginalised female characters from Homer’s classics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. One such example is The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.

The Silence of the Girls is predominantly from the perspective of Queen Briseis, who is enslaved by Achilles during the Trojan War. As a slave, Briseis is subjected to demeaning acts of sexual abuse and expected to perform as a maid, at the beck and call of the fighters settled on the beach of Troy. She exists solely to be claimed, owned, used and disregarded. Her situation is not extraordinary, in fact, there is a small community of other Trojan women who have found themselves in the same position. Their only solace is sharing a room together, where they work on looms during the day and reminisce on their old lives, before they are claimed for the nights by their owners. Generally alone and witness to the destruction of her home and family, Briseis is a jaded and embittered woman who spends a lot of time strolling along the beach in her solitude. 

Barker permits Briseis the privilege of sharing her story as a survivor and gives her a unique opportunity to present her perspective on one of the main events that changed the course of the Trojan war. You see, Briseis is the crucial piece of meat that serves as the catalyst for the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles. When, as the trophy prize of Achilles, she is stolen by Agamemnon and dangled cruelly before the camp as a gesture of dishonour, Briseis is regarded as the cause, as opposed to the victim, of the situation which eventually led to Achilles’ death. Barker reminds audiences that Briseis is the pawn, totally uninvolved within the dispute itself, yet tarnished as a result of the part she unwillingly played. 

The Silence of the Girls has been on my “to be read list” for a couple of years now. The novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 and garnered accolade as a feminist retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women who were enslaved during the Trojan War. The Silence of the Girls was not the only novel of this style to be shortlisted for the prestigious award. Madeline Miller’s second novel Circe, exploring the origins and adventures of the enchantress known for seducing Odysseus in The Illiad, also wound up being shortlisted for the same prize. This novel was released eight years after her stunning debut The Song of Achilles.

Now, it is impossible to talk about The Silence of the Girls without facing the elephant in the room. There are numerous comparisons to be made between The Song of Achilles and The Silence of the Girls. Firstly, both novels are set during the Trojan War and seek to empower the voices of marginalised characters such as that of Patroclus and Briseis. This is crucial in that they were otherwise regarded as voiceless or mere objects in the original narratives, described through the lens of the male gaze and generally depicted as passive roles within the patriarchal stories of the epic battles. Secondly, both novels seek to present Achilles in a more complex and dimensional manner: his archetypal masculinity is re-examined with a contemporary perspective, which explores his repressed sexuality and paints a picture of him as a sensitive and tormented fighter. I really enjoyed Barker’s depiction of Achilles’ mummy issues and his attempts at intimacy, probably more accurately described as suckling at his bed-thing’s teats like a child due a feed. In The Song of Achilles, Achilles’ personal identity, often eclipsed by the stature of his social identity as the prophetic “best fighter of all time”, is given the opportunity to exist on the page as an honorary queer literary figure. Where the novels differ, however, is in their discussions of war.

The Song of Achilles is a love story set against the backdrop of the Trojan war. Whilst Miller’s narrative is anchored in the romantic relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, Barker’s focus is solely on the absolute destruction of the war: she does not shy away from depicting brutality. Especially from the eyes of Briseis, who has seen her family slaughtered and knows of her cruel fate the moment she is plucked up by the enemy, there is no romanticisation. Her language is crude, profanic and bitter. She describes the squalid conditions in which the fighters survive: the rat infestations, the consequences of men riddled with plague and the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. The intention is definitely not to avoid the uncomfortable: audiences are reminded of the conditions at every possible opportunity and Briseis is scathing from the outset. 

Barker is brilliant at voicing Briseis’ anger. She doesn’t belong there in the camp, the property of some man who has come to claim his fame. She is a woman who had a life of her own and was stolen away, demoted and degraded as a prisoner of war. 

Overall, I enjoyed The Silence of the Girls, but feel it was somewhat lacklustre. It just didn’t impact me in the way I had anticipated. This is likely because I enjoyed The Song of Achilles so much and read it so recently. As much as I tried to objectively separate one novel from the other, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons! One thing’s for certain, I definitely want to read more by Barker as I thoroughly enjoyed her writing style. In the lead-up to the release of The Women of Troy and with so many other Greek mythology-based novels like Ariadne due for release shortly, I think I’ll take a brief break from this genre so that I can come back to it with a fresh set of eyes and really appreciate the nuances of the storytelling.

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