Fantasy · Historical Fiction · Retellings

The Silence of the Girls

This one has been on my TBR from the second I heard of it. I LOVE Greek mythology. I mean, I love any country’s/culture’s mythology, to be honest, but Greek is one of the classics (pun intended?). Anyways, I was super excited about this retelling of the Trojan War, and (let’s be honest cause he’s the “real” hero) Achilles, both in general and because it’s told from a woman’s perspective! The lost voices of basically all of history, but especially in these epic tales of battle and war and bravery, is the women’s voices. It’s like all my favorite things come together (and, you’ll recall I’m sure, that a similar type of story, Circe by Madeleine Miller, was my favorite book of 2018), so me and this book are, in my mind at least, a perfect match.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

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The Silence of the Girls is, as I mentioned, a retelling (ish) of the Trojan War. Our narrator, for the most part, is Briseis. She was once the wife of the King of Lyrnessus, but after the Greeks destroyed the city, she was given as a battle prize to the great Achilles…the man who murdered her husband and brothers. Forced to accommodate to her new life as Achilles’ slave and bed-girl, Briseis grants insight into the realities of war outside the glory of the battlefield, of the lives of the women of conquered lands after all their men have been slaughtered, their lives in the encampments and tents of the men who killed everything they’ve ever known, and the day-to-day “behind the curtains” truths of these exalted tales of history’s and mythology’s favorite heroes.

Well, I was right. I loved it. And wow, it was such an interesting mix of exactly what I expected and nothing like what I expected – neither of which I can really explain in a satisfactory way, I don’t think, but it was just wonderful. I was both simultaneously entranced and disgusted by the entire thing, which is such a unique mix of emotions that I don’t really know what to do with myself now. Barker’s writing is simply exquisite. Every page, every line, flows smoothly and eloquently into the next, spare and evocative all at the same time. I feel like I could live in her words. And yet, the reality that the words are telling us is gruesome and shocking. None of it is new, or unknown, yet told from this unheard perspective, it makes you realize the horrors that have been glossed over, purposefully downplayed and conveniently overlooked, for…ever. Barker is unflinching in the face of war, unwavering in her quest to show the darkest brutalities (never gratuitously, simply matter-of-facly), resolute in her role as the voice of these abused and terrorized female survivors. The way she captures the absolute acceptance of these “everyday” cruelties of war, the norming of this violence against and ownership of the “prizes” of battle, by everyone, the men and women alike, is striking. In particular, for me, this point was driven home towards then end, when Priam, knowing that defeat is imminent (which means his own death), is resigned to the horrific fates that await his conquered wife and daughters, saying simply that he is glad he will not be around to see it. It’s such a disheartening emotional acceptance of a terrible traditional fate that he gets an “easy” way out of, as a man. Anyways, the long and short of my rambling here is that Barker portrays it all flawlessly, through Briseis’ voice, of course, but giving representation to many of the different women in her same situation, and the various ways they react, emotionally and otherwise, in order to survive.

The only thing, narratively, that I took issue with is when, partway through the book, we started getting some sections that were written, sort of, from Achilles’ own perspective. I felt a little cheated by this, as Achilles has many other versions of this tale that tell his side (even romantically, with his feelings for Patroclus at center stage – in particular, Miller’s The Song of Achilles is fantastic and emotional in this way), and this retelling was supposed to be all about the women. So that was a bit frustrating. I understand that it showcased a more sentimental side of him than is normally given, and I appreciate that in this context, but still, Briseis voice could have (and actually did) tell us all that as well, and the integrity of her narration, and her right to narrate, could have been upheld.

As far as the plot, I mean, it’s common knowledge how Achilles’ story ends. The tragedy and glory of his life and death. But there is absolutely something…extra…in this new retelling. Briseis’ voice gives a singular perspective of Achilles’ heroism, pain, and inner life, as she is able to see him in ways that are different from everyone else. Her ability to convey his true character, without the romanticized lens of his followers, the jealous/fearful rivalry of the other kings, or the particular love of Patroclus (the only other person whose perspective might shine a light on any of Achilles’ true inner turmoil or failings) is prodigious. It shouldn’t be a surprise…she has no love for him (for he killed so many of her family and took away her life as she knew it), and manages to hold onto that, despite her slow acknowledgement that, under the circumstances, he could have been a much worse sort of man. And that, combined with her insights into his character from her private time with him and the hours she spends watching and anticipating his needs (she is, after all, his slave…and subject to any kind of retaliation should he not be satisfied with her), creates a truly unique angle from which to tell this story.

The way that Barker takes this well-worn legend and creates something new is just miraculous. She gives the reader such a personal and individual take on an event almost too expansive to truly comprehend, giving this mythological war and its heroes a very human spin. And she gives a long overdue voice to the girls that were silent victims of this epic story for so long. I am stunned by the beautiful pain in this novel and I absolutely recommend it.


Some passages and quotes that caught me as I was reading:

“…in my experience men are curiously blind to the aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see out battles – or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?”

“Isn’t that love’s highest aim? Not the interchange of two free minds, but a single, fused identity?”

“Grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced.”

“As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector’s body, he says: ‘I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.’ Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: ‘And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.’”

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

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6 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls

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