The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

cover of the silence of the girls by pat barker and quote: '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’.

This novel is a myth retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, one of the many women taken as slaves, prostitutes, nurses and concubines by the conquering Greeks. Since I read this book late 2018 it has been longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction, so naturally more people will pick it up. I understand why the book has a unique premise.

You don’t need to have read The Iliad for enjoying and understanding this novel.

History’s forgotten women and its questionable heroes

The main character is Briseis, a queen to one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms who becomes Achilles’ prized possession and war trophy after he takes her city, killing her husband and family. I love that the novel starts with an intro to Briseis’ life. It gives her story perspective and it serves as a stark contrast against what she has to endure in the Greek camp.

The novel is told from two perspectives, Briseis in first-person and Achilles in third-person. This change between first and third person adds contrast to the narrative, makes us feel closer to Briseis and keeps us detached and guessing about Achilles. I say guessing because even though he is portrayed as an inhumane warrior this lack of insight into his inner workings kept me on edge and I kept wishing to understand him better so I could find a redeeming quality. I see why Barker did this though, Achilles is a hero after all and heroes cannot be all that bad.

As a character-driven novel, the pace is slow. This book has been marketed as a story about the Troyan women taken by the Greeks and to some degree it is. I wish that there were more instances about the inner lives of the other women or generally about how they lived and how they dealt with captivity and sexual abuse.

It seemed to me that women took their fate with resignation. They accepted their fate, most of them, and kept on living as best as they could. Those were not good times to be a woman, as they had no voice, ‘silence is a woman’.

I’ve felt how lonely Briseis was throughout the whole story. She is always alone even when she is surrounded by other women bearing the same fate. The women did their best to survive which I guess meant not dwelling on their horrid fate. It meant detaching themselves from the whole world, including the other women whom they suffered alongside.

Who are the lovers in this story?

On the other hand, I found that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was too much into focus. Why it was necessary? Maybe! In the end, Briseis says ‘I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now my own story can begin.’ Slaves have no stories later generations are eager to hear, only the heroes are worth remembering. Her story begins when she stops being a slave.

‘What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. 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.’

It is a great and well-written myth retelling and I highly recommend reading it, especially if you like slow-paced character-driven stories.

Interested in myth retelling? Check out the review of Circe by Madeline Miller.

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