The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker
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—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring 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.
“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.”
The Silence of the Girls is a raw and emotional story about being a woman during the Trojan War and silence being your only chance of survival most of the time. It offers a complex look into the struggles of the Trojan women who ended up as slaves in the Greek camp, being constantly mistreated, and having divided loyalties. Barker is marvellous at showing how women had no voices and no choice during this tumultuous period and furthermore, their stories being still not told seriously centuries later. Their voices had remained unheard or their lives had been presented superficially. They had always remained in the shadows of the heroes who fought the war even if their sacrifices had been countless and their pain without comparison. But this book is set to change everything, giving those women faces, voices, and complex personalities. Their turmoil is inspected and Barker is very careful at being realistic while presenting their lives, their feelings and thoughts.
From the very first line when Briseis compares the way everyone sees Achilles, as brave and skilful, to the way the Trojan women saw him as a Butcher – you know that The Silence of the Girls is different from most books in the genre. One of the best parts of this book was how the relationship between Briseis and Achilles was never romanticised, she was his slave after all – there was a power imbalance there that could never turn into love especially taking in consideration that Achilles had killed her family. Then, we have the fact that the book focuses on the hardships of many Trojan women, not only Briseis – how they were captured and treated like mere objects, war trophies by those who invaded their country. There are a few chapters that touch upon the fate of Helen, who might seem like the most fortunate woman of those who witnessed the war, yet she’s arguably as voiceless as all the other girls.
The book is very complex when it comes to characterisation – the protagonists and the secondary characters are all very fleshed out. I especially adored Pat Barker’s take on Achilles, how she didn’t shy away from pointing out his many flaws (his brutality, his vanity) and his relationship with his mother was very uniquely described in the book – something I enjoyed tremendously. But these weren’t the only aspects where the author excelled, the book managed to evoke so many feelings inside of me from sadness to anger to relief and then some more. It was very easy to understand those characters and to feel what they were feeling. I think Briseis helped a lot here because she was a great narrator, very perceptive and very rarely wrong about her assumptions on others. For example, there were passages when Briseis honoured the dead bodies of the Greek soldiers and her inner monologue was so rich in empathy – she understood very well that there were so many victims on both sides and that no matter who won the war, they have lost way too much during the whole ordeal to feel anything resembling victory.
In conclusion, this is a mythology retelling that I would definitely recommend to anyone who’s interested in knowing more about the Trojan war – especially about those who hadn’t been painted as heroic before, yet they have been as strong, if not stronger than those whose names are still known today. The only issue that I’ve had with the book and that keeps me from giving it a full rating is that sometimes it feels like things aren’t moving as fast as they could be especially considering there are so many things to explore with the mythology being so rich. I’m quite biased though because I do like fast paced books and this one was definitely on the slower side, rather introspective and character driven. Even so, it’s one of the best retellings that I’ve read due to its rawness and fearless way of looking into the characters’ motives and backgrounds.
Have you read The Silence of the Girls? Did you enjoy it?
What other mythology retellings do you love?