The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker


Rating: ★★★★

“…grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced.”

Guess we’ll go ahead and get the content warnings out of the way: rape, PTSD, death of children, suicide, graphic violence.

This is largely a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad. It takes place during the nine year long siege of Troy. Briseis is wife to the King of Lyrnessus (I’ve probably spelled that wrong- apologies). We meet her just as the city is about to fall. She watches from the battlements as Achilles rages his way into the city. Someone jump from the battlements, preferring death to slavery. Briseis does not jump. Instead she is given to Achilles, yes that Achilles, as his war prize.

This book has a far different feel than you might expect. The past tends to be romanticized, the war, the glory of it, the conquering heroes. But Briseis, once a queen, now a slave tells this story, and nothing about it is romantic. I won’t lie- you sort of expect it at some points, but I think it’s on the reader- not on the author. Briseis never makes her story an easy one to hear. She is always reminding the reader what she endures. What she must go through to become a person again.

“…and no girl ever dressed more carefully for her wedding day than Achilles for the battlefield…”

But this is just as much Achilles story. Achilles, son of Peleus, leader of the Myrmidions. Achilles, whose only weakness is his heel. Great Achilles, hero to all Greece. In The Silence of the Girls, he is still all those things, but he is also many other things. I don’t know if he could be described as being obsessive, but he seems delusional at times. He also seems to have some kind of Oedipus complex. His thoughts and thought patterns are sometimes disturbing. And he was absolutely fascinating to read.

“I was invisible except in bed. In fact, I’m not sure how visible I was there, except as a collection of body parts.”

Briseis’s character was also fascinating, and felt very real. She struggles a lot to come to terms with the fact that she comes to love some of these men, but can never forget what they did to her home, her father, and brothers. She also can’t reconcile their enslavement of her.

The setting was sometimes difficult to imagine. She kept talking of huts in the same breath as verandas and compounds. They didn’t seem to go together (though in the beginning she does say the huts are not really huts). The book could be slow at times. You don’t witness much of the battles. It is largely a character driven novel.

Additionally the ending was unsatisfying and left me feeling sort of confused about my feelings overall for the book. Parts of it are uplifting- reminding us there can always be something to laugh about, that the shared experiences of women can be a uniting factor even if personal differences stand in the way of friendship. Larger parts of it were just tragedy- about the horrors of war, the silence of women, and all voices that can’t always speak for themselves, the dangers of allowing petty differences separate us.

It was beautifully written though and I found it hard to put to down. Highly recommend to fans of historical fiction or historical fantasy.

“…in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles—or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?”