Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the GirlsAbout the Book

From the Booker Prize-winning author of Regeneration and one of our greatest contemporary writers on war comes a reimagining of the most famous conflict in literature – the legendary Trojan War.

When her city falls to the Greeks, Briseis’s old life is shattered. She is transformed from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to the god-like warrior Achilles as a prize of war. And she’s not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long and bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters.

The Trojan War is known as a man’s story: a quarrel between men over a woman, stolen from her home and spirited across the sea. But what of the other women in this story, silenced by history? What words did they speak when alone with each other, in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?

In this magnificent historical novel, Pat Barker charts one woman’s journey through the chaos of the most famous war in history, as she struggles to free herself and to become the author of her own story.

Format: Hardcover, ebook (336 pp.)    Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Published: 30th August 2018         Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker sets out to give voice to the women ‘silenced’ in previous versions of the story of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure she entirely succeeds.  It all starts promisingly as the reader experiences the fall of Lyrnessus to the Greek army, commanded by Agamemnon, through the eyes of Briseis, wife of King Mynes.  The horror of the battle, the dreadful consequences of defeat for the female inhabitants of the city in particular and the aftermath of the battle are evocatively described.

After the fall of the city, Briseis and noble women like her are ‘awarded’ to leading figures in the Greek army in the manner of battle honours or prizes of war.  Because of her status, youth and beauty, Briseis is allocated to the legendary warrior, Achilles, becoming his slave and, effectively, his possession.   Briseis wryly notes that in some cases individual women’s lives are changed for the better following their capture if, that is, they possess youth, beauty and fertility.  ‘One girl, who’d been a slave in Lyrnessus – and a kitchen slave at that, the lowest of the low – was now the concubine of a great lord, while her mistress, a plain, slack-bellied woman near the end of her childbearing years, had to scratch and scrape for food around the fires.’

Surprised and unaccustomed to being on public view and unveiled when serving at Achilles’ table, Briseis eventually realises why he is happy for her to be seen by his comrades. ‘Nobody wins a trophy and hides it at the back of a cupboard. You want it where it can be seen, so that other men will envy you.’  The use of the word ‘it’ is relevant as, throughout the book, the author sheds light on the way the women are treated as objects.

For example, when Agamemnon later demands Briseis be handed over to him, Achilles’ anger is at being deprived of what he believes is rightfully his. ‘She’s his prize, that’s all, his prize of honour, no more, no less.  It’s nothing to do with the actual girl.’  His response to this perceived dishonour will have far-reaching and tragic consequences.  Later Briseis observes, ‘Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men’. For example, messages that demonstrate their status or their ability to wield power over others.

In parts two and three of the book, however, Briseis’ first hand narrative is interspersed with sections from the point of view of Achilles.  Given his pivotal role in subsequent events and his strange heritage (his father, Peleus, is a mortal but his mother is a sea goddess), I found the power of his unfolding story rather took over the book, especially when it comes to the intense relationship between Achilles and his friend, Patroclus.  Effectively, I felt Briseis was being silenced again.  This was underlined for me when Briseis notes, ‘Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.’  These are the last lines of the book.

The book does assume the reader has some prior knowledge of the story of The Trojan War and its key characters.  I had a little but not enough to recognise all the characters, their relationships or their role in the story.  I think a dramatis personae would be a really helpful addition to the book.   I wanted to love The Silence of the Girls and feel thrilled from beginning to end at witnessing the story of the clever, resourceful and resilient Briseis through her eyes and those of other women.  Instead I found that, although I could admire the skilful writing, I felt slightly disappointed at the end, that my high expectations had not been met.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of publishers, Hamish Hamilton, and NetGalley, in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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Pat BarkerAbout the Author

Pat Barker was born in Yorkshire and began her literary career in her forties, when she took a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. Thirty-five years later, she has published fifteen novels, including her masterful Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the UK’s highest literary honour, the Booker Prize. She lives in Durham and her new novel, The Silence of the Girls, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in August 2018.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

  1. I enjoyed this book, but I agree that the Achilles sections started to take over the story. As the title was The Silence of the Girls, I had hoped to hear more female voices!

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