Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
“What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”
Having enjoyed Stephen Fry’s Mythos and Madeline Miller’s Circe, I was excited to get stuck into The Silence of the Girls. This retelling tells the story of Queen Briseis who is stolen from Troy when it is taken by Greek soldiers. She is made a slave and given to the hero warrior Achilles, whose determination to win the long and arduous war, overtakes any affection or love he may show her. Now at the will of the Greeks, how is Briseis supposed to hold any power when she stands at the mercy of the men around her? The beginning of The Iliad will show the soldiers with their fierce battlecries, but more importantly, it will bare witness to the hidden women, the ones who bore the brunt of the worst and most terrifying part of the war – the unrelenting brute of the men in charge.
I liked how much this story didn’t always feel like it was a retelling. It was more focused on female empowerment and the women’s struggle to stay alive while in the midst of so much male brutality. Briseis herself didn’t just feel like a mythological character, she felt like a paragon of strength and one which people will empathise with, even in the modern day.
The thing with retellings is, it’s always useful to know a little about them before you get reading. So for this, having read some greek mythology before was useful, but I could imagine that if someone went in completely blind, it may not be as enjoyable. For a start, the character names are complicated in themselves, so just understanding how to pronounce those, helps you read more quickly.
Some of this was difficult to read just because of the visceral and brutal nature of Barker’s choice to tell all the gritty details. But, as with anything that’s trying to uncover silent stories, these details are necessary in order to find the truth, and Barker definitely wasn’t shy of telling the truth.
As much as The Silence of the Girls is about Briseis’ story, it’s also about the story of Achilles’ and Patroclus’. More focused on in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achillies, their relationship, fraught with tension, but tinged with affection, adds another layer to this book which makes it more interesting. I never felt much sympathy for Achilies, because I could see what Briseis was going through, but seeing his relationship with Patroclus, makes him seem less like a stoic greek warrior, and more human, and most importantly, more empathetic.
It’s easy to see why this book was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year; it’s empowering, but in a really subtle way. I love how Barker doesn’t shove down your throat that idea that these women were abused and tossed aside, instead, she shows you their stories, and makes you see why Greek mythology has been focused on the men for far too long.