‘I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls…’
When her city falls to the Greeks, led to victory by the god like warrior Achilles, Briseis’s old life is shattered. Abducted and shipped to the Greek camp on the battleground at Troy, she goes from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to Achilles as a prize of honour. She’s not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long, bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters.
As told in The Iliad, the Trojan war was a quarrel between men – over Helen, stolen from her home and spirited to Troy, a voiceless female icon of male desire. But what of the women in this story, silenced by their fates? What words did they speak when alone with each other, in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?
In this magnificent novel of the Trojan War, Pat Barker summons the voices of Brieses and her fellow women to tell this mythic story anew, foregrounding their experiences against the backdrop of savage battle between men. One of the great contemporary writers on war and its collateral damage, Pat Barker here reimagines the most famous of all wars in literature, charting one woman’s journey through the chaos of the greek encampment, as she struggles to free herself and to become the author of her own story.
I don’t know what it is about Greek mythology that fascinates me so much but as soon as I read the blurb, I felt like this book was meant to fall into my hands.
I was more drawn to this book due to the female driven narrative and perspective that Pat Barker offers in this novel. Correct me if I’m wrong but prior to this book I haven’t really heard of a story which explores the female perspective of the Trojan war and as said in the blurb, even Helen was a ‘voiceless female icon of male desire’. I think that would be a really interesting take actually… *furiously googles to see if any such book exists* I tend to love retellings of classic stories or mythology in general so I had high hopes for this book.
Trigger warnings: Rape, Violence, War, Suicide, Slavery, PTSD, Death of Children and infants. If you are sensitive in regards to these topics and feel unable to read, please exercise caution and take care of your health.
What I loved:
- Writing style – Barkers prose is BEAUTIFUL. I had to put that in caps just to emphasise how stunning I found her writing, it was fluid, heart wrenching and powerful all at once. There were many instances where I was moved by it and it is truly memorable work.
- Briseis – Briseis is a woman whose world has been torn apart as the Greeks invade her city and she is taken away from any semblance of safety and everyone she loves. She acts as our eyes and ears in this novel and exposes a lot of uncomfortable but needed truths about life as a woman amongst the conflict of the Trojan war. Women are seen as the ‘spoils of war’ to be divided and granted to the best warriors in the army and Breseis due to her beauty and previous status is given to Achilles. This is when the new chapter of her life begins and she works to determine just what her new role is and comes to term with all she has lost.
- Sisterhood / female friendship – Throughout the horrors that the female characters face, the one thing that remains constant is their support and care for each other. In the wake of the trauma they experience, the women in the camp form a sisterhood that keeps them going. They permit themselves to be vulnerable in each others presence, laugh and try and find a shred of happiness, in an otherwise fraught situation.
- Achilles – Although in all the traditional tellings of this story Achilles is this mythical hero who is a brilliant warrior and leads the armies to victory. Barker offers an alternative or more nuanced depiction of Achilles, whereby we get the view of his brutality, cruelty and intimidation. I didn’t like this Achilles and you’re not meant to. Barker phrases this perfectly – ‘“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”.
- Achilles & Patroclus – Although this version of Achilles was so unlikeable (and that’s putting it lightly) I couldn’t help but be deeply affected by the intense relationship between him and Patroclus. Patroclus is Achilles best friend, to put it simply, but their bond goes far further than this, with allusions to a past romantic relationship between the two. Achilles reaction to the death of Patroclus BROKE ME. It was so raw and painful and Barker represents this grief so well, I felt for Achilles but it doesn’t expunge him of his series of wrongdoings either.
- Retelling – While I was already familiar with the story of the Trojan war and the main characters; Achilles, Patroclus, Hector and Helen as well as Agamemnon. My literature degree did come in handy after all! I believe this ‘retelling’ offers something unique and important, it gives a voice to a female character who has previously been silenced and underrepresented. It shows that amongst the heroism and grand nature of the tale, there is a dark underside where a lot of people – particularly the women suffered through no fault of their own.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Silence of the Girls – it was powerful, heartbreaking and resonant. This story is dark and delves into difficult topics but is necessary and exposes problematic things we can learn from in modern times too, especially when it comes to the treatment of women in times of conflict. If you’re into Greek mythology, retellings of classic tales or just want a story that will immerse you and anger you in equal measure then definitely take a read of this story.
★★★★★ – 5 Star rating
Until next time,
My favourite quotes:
“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.”
“So many pebbles on that beach—millions—all of them worn smooth by the sea’s relentless grinding, but not this one. This one had stayed sharp.”
“But he does worry about it—in the long hours of darkness. And then, in the morning, he forgets the weakness of the night.”
“grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced.”