Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
First Published: 30 August 2018
Rating: 5 stars
“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’.”
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighbouring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history.
This was my first Pat Barker and I adored every minute! I was hooked from the opening line. I am a huge fan of Trojan War retellings as this is one of the best I’ve read. Barker does a wonderful job of giving voice to those whose lives’ are equally destroyed by war but don’t have the chance to fight back; the women.
The Silence of the Girls gives an unflinching look at war outside the glory and fame. We open with the fall of Tory’s neighbouring city, Lyrnessus. The city’s queen, Briseis, has been captured and is given as a war prize to famed hero, Achilles.
The story is told by Briseis although we do get some sections from Achilles point of view. What I love about Briseis’ voice is how it changes over the course of the narrative. The longer she’s captive at the Greek camp the more her voice loses its individuality and blends into the collective voice of the stolen women. This technique is stunning! It really reflects the way they are treated. Once captured, they are given away as prizes along with the treasures taken from fallen kingdoms.
Barker’s portrayal of the Greek leaders lacks the gloss and shine from The Iliad. They are less heroic, gritty like the trench soldiers of WWI. I really enjoyed this comparison. It was refreshing but at the same time does fit with the overall storyline.
The description of Achilles and Patroclus is one of the best I’ve read. Barker is able to balance to their complex characteristics — Achilles’ brutal violence and his shining heroism and Patroclus’ ruthlessness and his kind heart. I adored the glimpses into their relationship. There are hints that the pair aren’t as equal as first assumed. At the end of the day, Achilles is a prince and used to this orders being followed, where Patroclus is a banished prince with no title.
I loved this book and it is one of my favourite retellings. If you loved Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ransom by David Malouf this one definitely for you!