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.

BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

I’ve seen the thumbnail for this book on a lot of Goodreads forums over the last couple of years and decided to pick it up as a bit of a contrast to my recent reading material. I’ve looked forward to Madeline Miller’s take on Circe, the marginal character in the epic The Odyssey, as I have little to no wider knowledge of Circe’s origins or impact in Greek mythology. Like most children, I went through a pretty obsessive phase with the fables of the Greeks, which were vivid and often centred around a moral quandary or heroic quest featuring exotic islands, the brutality of the gods, their many affairs, their many illegitimate children and, of course, brutal monsters. Scorned women with snakes for hair, men flying too close to the sun and three-headed dogs filled a lot of my imagination as a kid and I (guiltily) may have repeated the tales to some of my relatives when they were far too young to be hearing about grisly creatures of that nature, but oh well…

It’s been a long time since I’ve read any feminist retellings of historical/mythological tales: people of my generation may remember having to study The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy for GCSE English, a short collection of poems from the perspectives of the women behind the men in folklore, fairy tales, religious texts and historical artifacts. I initially disliked it, but after deconstructing it to shreds and considering the intricacies of Duffy’s writing, I actually ended up changing my mind entirely. Duffy gave us empowered, embittered and complex portrayals of characters such as Samson’s Delilah, Red Riding Hood and Demeter. These iconographic figures were often overshadowed by their husbands or fathers or, well, any other man within their vicinity. Duffy gave these women voices and real, authentic representations of women’s experiences of love, motherhood and rage.

Miller humanises Circe in the same way, unpicking her very complicated relationship with family and the abandonment she faces from various lovers. She introduces Circe as the “ugly duckling” daughter of a nymph and the sun god/titan Helios. She is depicted as an unsightly abhorration in comparison to her siblings due to her hawk-like yellow eyes and is silenced often as her voice draws comparison to that of a screeching owl. She possesses no notable powers and is unremarkable in basically every way, destined to be married off to a mortal when her time comes, though she is frequently reminded that nobody will have her. After a series of serendipitous defiances, including the transformation of beautiful nymph Scylla into a six-headed gorgon, Circe comes to realise that she may possess the very real powers of pharmaka (witchcraft that relies upon the earth’s natural resources for divination) that have only been rumoured among the titans. This level of ability could rival that of the Olympian gods, potentially even stirring another rift between Zeus’ forces and the titans.

As a punishment for her defiances, Circe is exiled by her father on her an island with only the overgrown wilderness of foliage and a few wild pigs as her companions. Here she creates a life for herself, taking the time to understand her craft and hidden power. Visited occasionally by the meddling Hermes, also her casual lover, Circe begins to finesse her abilities and build a sense of self. Along this journey, she deals with unwanted visitors upon the island, hushed talks of her destiny as part of a great prophecy, the sting of rejection from her family and the woes of isolation.

Miller’s worldbuilding is phenomenal: you get lost in the way she weaves her storytelling prowess from page one. Obviously, she has a girthy bank of material to draw from, however, she really does put her own signature stamp on her version of Circe by also adding some of her own fictional embellishments (for instance, the introduction of Trigon, the large leviathan-esque deep sea god). Miller is immersive and impressive with her seamless transitions through periods of Circe’s life, taking readers on a series of micro-narratives that involve characters such as Prometheus, Glaucos, Hermes and Daedalus.

What I especially appreciated was how Miller creates a brilliantly sympathetic portrayal of a character who has been disgraced and ridiculed in previous iterations. This is no easy feat, but Miller makes it clear that though Circe may be otherworldly, her emotions and experiences are accessible to readers and not at all alien. Readers can relate to the angst of Circe feeling as though she doesn’t belong or isn’t wanted. Naturally, the scope for this level of depth was missing in The Odyssey due to the sheer volume of adventures and characters within the narrative, so it’s awesome to have a modern-day envisioning of Circe that modern-day readers can resonate with.

Also, Miller’s complicated presentation of Circe is groundbreaking because this is an important deviation from the original narrative of The Odyssey. There we heard the more reductionist tales of the puritan Madonna-like characters such as Penelope, waiting faithfully and patiently for her husband Odysseus despite the pressure to take a new suitor, and the whore-like characters like Circe, who essentially took people hostage for the selfish purposes of fulfilling desire and avoiding loneliness. Both authorship and readership have developed substantially in the times since The Odyssey was born unto the world. Gone is the expectation that characters should simply fulfill the binary of evil vs good: we are instead more interested in the multi-faceted characterisation of women who are capable of encompassing both “good” and “bad” traits, and can’t be easily boxed into one description. Miller’s Circe is a living, breathing emblem of a well-written woman, as real and complicated as any you might pass on the street. This is her greatest victory with the book and it was utterly stunning to read.

I can’t wait to read Song of Achilles!