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: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Conversations with Friends is about two childhood friends, Frances and Bobbi, who complete each other in a wholesome platonic way (though they did once have a brief stint as a romantic couple). The women exist in stark contrast to one another within social situations, with Frances, being the shy and often reserved figure within the friendship group, frequently finding herself overshadowed by the exuberant and flamboyant personality of Bobbi.

Inseparable, they attend university together and spend almost every possible waking moment in each other’s company. Hyper-intelligent and politically active, in their spare time, they use the platform of spoken poetry to express their uncompromising views. Frances is the avid and sole writer at the helm of the material, and shares the stage with Bobbi, who, of the two of them, is the effortless and passionate performer that conveys the words with power. It is at a spoken poetry event that they first meet Melissa, a charming older woman who photographs them for a feature in a magazine. Melissa takes the young women under her wing, and it is from this point that the lives of the ladies are intrinsically changed. Invited regularly to her bourgeois home, shared with her handsome husband Nick, Frances and Bobbi’s friendship is tested by jealousy and secrets in a way that it has never been before.

In classic Rooney style, not much “happens” in Conversations with Friends. Despite that, I stayed up till 2-am to finish as I couldn’t put it down. Perhaps this is because it’s a stylistic break from some of the more heavy literature I’ve read recently or because of the fact that, from the outset, I was hooked in by the allure of the strangely dislikeable and morally questionable protagonists. It’s nice not to have an affinity with the people who are leading the story, for once.

I would say that the main notable attribute of the novel is that there are striking similarities with Normal People, the second novel by Sally Rooney. I’ll give some examples: Frances, like Marianne, is insecure and often self-destructive in her exploits. She harms herself instinctively when upset and chases an unrewarding relationship with Nick, knowing from the get-go that her decision will have devastating consequences. Marianne does the very same thing, collecting meaningless partners as a means to pass the time or at least give the appearance of general romantic interest. Are they one in the same?

Not only that, but the intimacy between Bobbi and Frances really demonstrated the powerful love of platonic relationships in a way that I found to resemble the strength and durability of Marianne and Connell’s relationship. Though the two are diverted by their separate relationships with Melissa and Nick, like magnets, they are inevitably drawn together once again. This can also be said for Marianne and Connell. Strangely, there was an almost verbatim intimate scene wherein Frances asks Nick to hit her during sex, and this very same conversation is had in Normal People when Marianne asks the same of Connell.

I was a little confused by this as, though there were some differences between the two novels, I couldn’t quite tell whether Rooney’s debut was a chance at a story and Normal People was a more evolved iteration of what she had intended to accomplish the first time. Did Rooney run out of fresh material or was she really intent on exhausting what she’d already started?

There’s some element of a narrative arc, but really the primary joy of the book is the fleshy dialogues between the characters. Intimate and real, these sections capture the essence of modern love, half in-person and half interactions stolen from text and email excerpts. I enjoyed that the book was partially in an epistolary form- Sally Rooney is fabulous at representing the trials and tribulations of modern love and the way that she writes perfectly captures the frustrations of not being able to fully express what one means through a screen. Despite this, even having read Normal People, I found some of these conversations to be quite disjointed as they weren’t distinguished with speech parenthesis, as is the convention with most novels.

In summary, I enjoyed Conversations with Friends as a light-hearted, “easy read”. There were no philosophical musings to be had and this was a welcome break for me, given my recent reading material. That being said, I wasn’t bowled over by the novel and I certainly didn’t think it brought anything innovative to the table. Unlike Normal People, I wasn’t caught up thinking about it long after I’d finished the novel, either. I’m interested to see what comes next from Rooney, whether she develops a knack for delivering the same/similar story in a different package or whether there’s more variety to be unleashed as her career continues.