The Silence Of The Girls

In the narrow Lanes of Lyrnessus Achilles is leading his men as they ransack the Trojan city in revenge for the kidnapping of Helen. Once all the men are killed the women are taken to the Greek soldiers’ camp as slaves. Briseis the queen is given as a prize to Achilles, the man who butchered her family and it’s her story that’s central to this retelling of The Iliad.

I found this shocking and upsetting but incredibly compelling, the domestic lives of the women and their children amidst the biblical brutality of bored and frustrated warriors.

As the terror of the first few days goes by Briseis gets to know the other ‘prizes’ and it’s interesting to see how their relationships with their captors differ- some give advice on ‘how to make the best of things’ , others have given birth and are sure love has developed. And the men too are different, the grotesqueness of Agamemnon is matched by the kindness shown by Petroclus, but Briseis is a shrewd commentator always watching and aware of her situation.

She watches the common women tending fires and carrying cooking pots waiting for the warriors to return. They are the most wretched, living around the fires and sleeping under the huts. They’re women given to the men for their common use, and she knows that she could so easily become one of them. Her voice is bitter and hard, brutal even as she describes the savagery, but this is mixed with some often beautiful lines from the narrator, like this paragraph:

‘Achilles lives in the present. He remembers the past, not without regret, but increasingly without resentment. He rarely, if ever, thinks about the future, because there is no future. It’s amazing how easily he’s come to accept that. His life rests like a dandelion clock on the palm of his open hand, a thing so light the merest breath of wind can carry it away. From somewhere – perhaps from Priam – he seems to have acquired an old man’s acceptance of death. He knows there’s no future and he really doesn’t mind.’

I thought this mixing up of styles kept the reading really fresh, and while I never thought Pat Barker was being in any way sympathetic towards the men, she was able to show the complexity of humans that made her camp life seem so real and made a really absorbing read.

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch (1861-1942).

18 thoughts on “The Silence Of The Girls

  1. Excellent review! I’ve been a big fan of Pat Barker’s since I read her Regeneration Trilogy. I’m also very fond of reinterpretations of the Greek & Roman classics, which I studied a bit when I when I was in college. And — I have a copy of Silence of the Girls, which I haven’t yet read! I’m afraid that, like Kaggsy, I’ve avoided it because I’ve not been ready to deal with the brutality of the world that it portrays. It was one thing to read the Iliad as a callow teenager, quite another to really understand what life was like for one of those “prize” women. But — I’ll get to it! One day.
    By sheer coincidence, I’ve just discovered that Barker has another book due out shortly, The Women of Troy, in which she continues Briseis’ story. Hopefully, Briseis will come into her own at some point! I don’t think the myths speak of her ultimate fate, as they do with Hector’s wife, Andromache, who in some versions ultimately gained her freedom and some degree of power.

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    1. I’m amazed by Pat Barker – I first read her in the ’80’s and a book called Union Street and then had to go and make sure the Regeneration series was by the same author, they are so different! Amazing to be able to tackle such different subjects and so well. I saw The Women of Troy mentioned somewhere and will definitely read it – I’m a bit behind with the reworkings of the myths, but I enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad as well. I hope you do get around to reading this, it’s absorbing reading!

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    1. Thanks Rose and that’s a really good idea. I’ve read The Odyssey and then ‘had’ to read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood to get some retribution for the maids, this time it’s the wrong way round and now I feel I need to read The Iliad!

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  2. Perhaps one day I’ll try this one. Although I have all three books, I’ve never finished The Regeneration Trilogy despite applauding the quality of the writing. I shall try to finish that and consider this one afterwards. Strong review, Jane!

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  3. Oh this one sounds interesting! I’ve always liked Greek mythology. Nothing beats the real thing ( I love The Iliad), but I’ve also enjoyed retellings such as Circe. I don’t know if the brutality would bother me. Perhaps I need to give it a try.

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    1. I haven’t read Circe yet and keep meaning too – the brutality did bother me, the language is violent – Pat Barker doesn’t hold back, but I was completely absorbed!

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  4. I think I would find this a really tough book to read, but your thoughtful summary of it is interesting, particularly in terms of novel’s depth and complexity. Will you go on to read the sequel, coming in a couple of weeks?

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    1. I did find it upsetting Jacqui and a couple of times was genuinely shocked, but it is compelling and I’m definitely going to read the sequel and The Iliad!


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