“We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.”
Author: Pat Barker Published: 2018 Pages: 304 Rating: 4 stars
I went into this story having read neither Homer’s The Iliad or anything by Pat Barker. However, that didn’t stop me from being instantly captivated by this retelling.
The Silence of the Girls is told from the perspective of former queen Briseis who is captured and descends to become Achilles’ prize of war. In grand epics, women have no opinion, they have no power, they have no voice. However, Barker fills this vacuum and offers readers a new perspective of the story and its brutal heroes. Briseis becomes an unknowing catalyst for Troy’s eventual downfall by dint of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and Barker succeeds in telling her side of the story; fearful, observant and angry. She writes of the sexual and psychological abuse which is so often normalised in male-dominant stories and by no means romanticises their suffering.
“She was like a windflower trembling on its slender stem, so fragile you feel it can’t possibly survive the blasts that shake it, though it survives them all.”
The reason I gave this story 4 stars was down to the jarring shift of perspectives. After the first part, the story begins telling the overarching story of the heroes and the shift from first to the third perspective comes without warning.
Nonetheless, the intercut of Briseis’ account with that of Achilles’ is interesting. He’s not only a brutal warrior but a complex and troubled man. It’s as if a part of him has died as he experiences the overwhelming anguish at the death of his closest friend, and suspected lover, Patroclus. Briseis’ anger and grief, swallowed down and unvoiced, is therefore juxtaposed with Achilles’ own violent outpouring, consumed by conflict.
Barker’s comparisons don’t stop here. We identify a contrast between the vulgar talk of male characters and the quieter conversations between women. She explores not only the brutal battlefield of war but the paralleling battlefield located in the hospital tents, the sleeping quarters, the spaces women inhabit. She juxtaposes the lavish tapestries, grand feasts and gold plates with the overcrowded huts and rats, ultimately leading to the plague.
All of this captures the nature of the epic as well as the quiet moments of beauty, as she brings the Greek encampment to life. The story ends with a glimmer of hope, Briseis is a survivor. She stayed strong throughout her suffering rather than throwing herself off a cliff to save her virtue, as was the case for other women. This was a quick read for me, instantly gripped by the lyrical language. The Silence of the Girls is a song of grief, anger and survival. You don’t need prior knowledge of Homer’s epic before reading this stunning story and I recommend everyone gives this retelling a read.
Thank you NetGalley and Penguin UK for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review!
You can find out more about the book here on Goodreads.
Thanks for reading!