Review | The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

About the Book

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 watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. 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 to observe the two men driving the Greek forces 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.

304 pages (kindle)
Published on September 11, 2018
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I’ve never really found myself particularly interested in the saga of Troy until I read The Song of Achilles a few years ago. That book ruined me, and I loved it. It’s also one of my favorite books. Something about Madeline Miller just does it for me. However, more than just loving a good story told well, it got me really interested in Troy and Achilles, and the history of that period, which is something I knew nearly nothing about before. 

The thing is, if you want to read about a bit of history that is just overflowing with personal and political drama, you can’t really do much better than Troy, Achilles, Patroclus, and Briseis. The war was bloody and horrible, and a really good author can take what is offered and twist it in such a way, so each retelling feels fresh, new, and like a punch right into the solar plexus of the reader’s feels. 

“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’.”

The Silence of the Girls is a book I’ve heard a whole lot about, but I haven’t really wanted to read it. I’m not sure why, but there was some reluctance there, and now that I’ve read it, I regret not having read it sooner. This book tells the story of Troy, though from the woman’s perspective, through one Briseis, who is taken as Achilles’s concubine. 

This is not a book for the faint of heart. There is a lot in here that can turn your stomach and, if certain things like rape and abuse bother you, could easily serve as a trigger. Readers should be aware of that when jumping in. However, I’m a bit morbid, and I found that I appreciated Baker’s unflinching way of looking at the female experience of war. It’s not unique to Troy, rather, it’s something that still happens to this day, and while the author never glorifies it, she doesn’t hide from it either. 

I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

That being said, Briseis is a fantastic narrator with a powerful voice and a strong personality that is instantly the match for anything set against her. While the writing is lyrical, and slips into poetry at times, the beauty of it is matched with the strong will of Briseis herself, and her ability to look every situation in the eye and tell the truth of it. The juxtaposition of beautiful prose and horrific events is something that, as a writer, I try very hard to put in my own books. I really love it, and I love how Barker uses that narrative tool in this book.

Briseis’s power of observation means that a lot of what is happening is laid out, almost studiously, for the reader. She is, at times, both exhausted and infuriated, and yet there is a softer side of her as well. A side full of yearning. Briseis may be the voice, but she tells the story of the whole, and does it incredibly effectively. 

The story of Troy is not new. It’s been told for thousands of years, since Homer, and it’s not new in books, either. There’s something about this particular historical drama that draws people to it. Troy can, at times, feel overused, overtold… just over. However, Barker has a knack for retelling a story that could easily feel stale and breathe new life into it. Briseis’s tale of her fall from queen to slave is not a particular aspect of the story I’d ever seen focused on before. That says a lot about how women are often overlooked in history, but it also says a lot for Barker’s ingenuity, her ability to take one of the lesser-touched aspects of the Troy saga, and turn it into a gripping narrative.

“I listened and let it soothe me, that ceaseless ebb and flow, the crash of the breaking waves, the grating sigh of its retreat. It was like lying on the chest of somebody who loves you, somebody you know you can trust—though the sea loves nobody and can never be trusted. I was immediately aware of a new desire, to be part of it, to dissolve into it: the sea that feels nothing and can never be hurt.” 

Briseis is weaker than those who hold her captive. She can’t use her physical strength against here enemies, and this is, perhaps, what captivated me about her the most. She has the strength of her voice, of her knowledge, and most importantly, her power of observation is the knife she uses the most. It is through this observation that the entire saga of Troy is spun on its head. Briseis shows what life was like for a woman in her world both before the war, and during everything that came after the war began. Women, often kept indoors, neither seen nor heard, are often overlooked. Their job is to tolerate silently. Her life as a queen is revealed as a different form of captivity from her life as a slave, yet it is still captivity. 

Through all of this, the reader is left with a lot of very complex thoughts. Briseis forces us to examine a woman’s role and importance in conflict, in history, and in narrative. She makes us examine the female side of war, which is rarely so unflinchingly told. Briseis shows readers that physical weakness does not mean that a person does not contain strength, and emotions are not the enemy. And while doing this, she often shows these larger than life historical figures, Achilles, Agamemnon and the like in a far different, often surprising, light. Perhaps the most impressive result of all of this is the way Barker turned all of these characters into living, breathing people who exist and became my reality while I was reading. 

“How do you separate a tiger’s beauty from its ferocity? Or a cheetah’s elegance from the speed of its attack? Achilles was like that — the beauty and the terror were two sides of a single coin.” 

Intermixed in all of this are some bits of story told from Achilles’ point of view. I really enjoyed these parts of the book, because after reading so much of Briseis’s story, it was interesting to get into the head of the man who was such a force and central figure in her world. However, I can also see where readers would find this less than enchanting and might even find these parts of the book a slog to read. 

By this point, it’s pretty obvious that I loved this book. I enjoyed the tragedy, the darkness, even the hard parts to read. I also loved the quiet moments of beauty that were sprinkled throughout. Mostly, what I loved were the prose, and how this story was so incredibly human despite all the inhumanity in it. Briseis was a captivating narrator, with an unforgettable voice and an unflinching eye for detail. The Silence of the Girls takes the Trojan War, does something new and unforgettable with it, and I absolutely loved it. 

5/5 stars