The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Posted On 10 September 2018

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thesilenceI really loved The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  It was a story that was absolutely immersive, brutal and yet beautiful, subtle and yet stark.  Pat Barker has taken probably the most famous battle from historical fiction and by twisting the view point given it a fascinating female voice whilst at the same time managing to steer clear of romance.

What I really loved about this is that wars and battles set in certain historic periods are usually the reserve of men and the stories that ensue as a result, being told by the victors, are usually one sided affairs and rather biased in the conqueror’s favour.  What we have in The Silence of the Girls is the perfect opportunity to read a story told not only by somebody from the opposing side but also a female, now a slave and at one point a woman with the opportunity to relay incidents from two of the main characters from within the heart of the Greek camp.

As the story begins we witness the fall of Lyrnessus with Achilles heading the charge.  The events are witnessed from atop one of the towers by a number of women, one being Briseis who will shortly be taken as a bed slave and given to Achilles as a prize to reward his heroics, a trophy for him to flaunt.  Standing atop a tower watching Achilles brutally slaying her family Briseis is less inclined to see him as the hero of the piece, still, she desperately wants to live and her life by comparison is much better than that of so many of the other women who were captured and enslaved.  I’m not going to elaborate too much further on the plot.  Whether you’re familiar with the Illiad or not it’s likely that you will have heard of many of the characters and the story surrounding them.  The Silence of the Girls brings to us the last few weeks of the Trojan war.  It doesn’t attempt to rewrite the events or give them a modern take, it’s quite simply a retelling but from a different perspective.

The writing here is wonderful.  It’s bloody and violent in parts but then so is war and this is an author who not only knows how to write a battle scene but also doesn’t shy away from the horror and brutality.  The majority of the book isn’t about the battles of course but I would point out that there are a few scenes that readers may find unsettling and I would also point out the mention of rape which, whilst there isn’t anything graphic, I thought I should note it.  Like I said, the focus here isn’t the war itself but more life within the camp as experienced by Briseis.  Of course the battles are quite often in very close proximity to the beach and so the horrors of battle are sometimes evident whether the narrator wishes to see them or not.  I just thought this was really well portrayed, to be honest I had moments that I could have been standing on that beach witnessing events they were that well drawn – and yet not overly descriptive.  Clarity without the clutter.

In terms of the characters.  Well, firstly, let me make clear that I haven’t read the Illiad so I’m in no way able to compare the two or look for differences in temperaments or the like.  For me what became very clear was that this was not a love story where Briseis finds herself falling head over heels for the God’s blessed Achilles.  As the person who killed her family she despises him but at the same time she has the wisdom to understand not to express such thoughts aloud.  She knows her place basically – this isn’t about her being all sassy and winning Achilles over by standing up to him.  Briseis is telling the story but she’s very much aware that she’s only a bystander.  The Silence of the Girls is exactly as it’s title suggests.  Women were expected to keep quiet and do as they were bid.  This is about Briseis and her own survival.  It’s also an intriguing character study of a few of the other players and a look at a war camp from a viewpoint that we wouldn’t normally see it from.

Achilles and Patroclus for example.  Their friendship and love for each other comes across clearly although Achilles has the upper hand and quite often treats Patroclus as his errand boy.  Everybody likes Patroclus though and it’s easy to see why.  He’s a little bit more human.  Of course Achilles isn’t all human, his mother being a water goddess and all.  Achilles comes across in some instances as fairly easy to read.  He’s all about the heroics and glory.  Taking Briseis as his bed slave for example.  It doesn’t come across as something he particularly cares about or enjoys, more something that is his right. Briseis is very aware that she has no agency, she’s a ‘thing’ and when she is taken by Agamemnon she becomes the ‘thing’ that came between Agamemnon and Achilles – as such everyone lays the blame at her door even though she had no choice in the matter.  But, again, Briseis does what she needs to do to survive and if that means shrinking into the background she’s not afraid to do so.

The relationship between Achilles and Briseis is a strangely developing one.  I would say they almost mutually disregard each other to begin with.  Achilles doesn’t mistreat Briseis but at the same time he doesn’t particularly seem to care if she’s there or not – although he does become a little besotted at one point – but that’s a story I won’t go into here but let you discover for yourself.  What I did like was the subtleties about Achilles, in a way he feels toyed with himself, he certainly has ‘mummy’ issues and there are these small moments where you feel sympathy for him.  He’s definitely a conflicted character – and I don’t suppose having your death laid out before you can be easy.  Which brings me to the final characters of the piece – the Gods.  I loved the way that the Gods play a part in this story.  It all feels so natural and taken for granted as par for the course.  Of course there are Gods, with fragile egos who like to play games, not just with the mere mortals, but with each other.

In terms of criticisms – I don’t have anything really, I did have a short spell where this all felt very familiar – but then it’s a retelling so of course it feels familiar.  I think the other two things of note is that Briseis is not given a modern day outlook so please don’t expect her to be all feisty and kickass and also don’t start this one expecting a romance.  This isn’t a love story as such.

I think that this is a great retelling.  The characterisation is certainly one of my favourite aspects and the way the author describes the camp and brings it to life – it’s just so wonderfully written.  I loved reading the story and thought Briseis made an excellent narrator.  Now if somebody could write a similar story from Achille’s mother I’d be just as happy as Larry.

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher, through Edelweiss, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

 

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15 Responses to “The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker”

  1. Tammy

    Wow, awesome review. This book terrifies me a little, like I would need to already know lots of details about the Illiad, but it sounds very readable with fantastic characters.

    • @lynnsbooks

      Trust me – you would be fine. I haven’t read the Iliad but I knew all the characters and the main plot and I’m sure you will do too.
      Lynn 😀

  2. maddalena@spaceandsorcery

    What a fascinating premise! When I was in school I loved everything connected with the old Greek myths, so this would certainly fall within my tastes, and I like the idea of seeing the events through such a different perspective.
    Thank you so much for showcasing this book that might otherwise have flown under my radar… 🙂

    • @lynnsbooks

      Yeah, I’ve not really seen or heard a lot about this book but I really enjoyed it.
      Lynn 😀

  3. Carmen

    Excellent review, Lynn! 🙂 This is the second post I read about this book this month, and my interest is piqued. I’d love to read it. I’ll keep it in mind.

    • @lynnsbooks

      I hope you get a chance to pick up – I’d be curious to read your thoughts.
      Lynn D

  4. waytoofantasy

    This one sounds really interesting. I love anything to do with the ancient Greeks and mythology so I may have to check this one out. Thanks!

    • @lynnsbooks

      It worked well for me, hope you get a chance to give it a go, I’d be interested to see what you make of it.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Lisa (@TenaciousReader)

    This one sounds really impressive!

  6. Mogsy @ BiblioSanctum

    Oh wow, this is a very cool premise! I’m only passing familiar with the Iliad, but I think I could still really enjoy that twist on the POV.

    • @lynnsbooks

      TBH I’ve never read it but I think, like me, you’ll be familiar with all the characters and this isn’t trying to change the story at all – it’s just using a different viewpoint which I really liked the idea of.
      Lynn 😀

  7. sjhigbee

    What a fabulous review! And I’m now absolutely hooked. I had a teacher who read us (a much abridged) version of the Iliad when I was a small girl and I LOVED it. So I would love to read it:).

    • @lynnsbooks

      I really enjoyed it – I just loved the different angle.
      Lynn 😀

      • sjhigbee

        I’m definitely going to track this one down!

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