Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There was a woman at the heart of the Trojan War whose voice has been silent – until now. Discover the greatest Greek myth of all – retold by the witness that history forgot . . .

Briseis was a queen until her city was destroyed. Now she is a slave to the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Trapped in a world defined by men, can she survive to become the author of her own story?

After the Greeks take Lyrnessus, many women are captured, enslaved and shared out amongst the Greek soldiers. One of these women is Briseis, who was married to the King of Lyrnessus, and is now the property of the Great Achilles to do with whatever he pleases… And by whatever pleases him or any of the other Greek soldiers, I mean whatever pleases .

There’s so much I could say about this book, it really got me thinking about things, and it has reignited my enthusiasm for all things mythology. So, brace yourself, this is very likely going to be a loooong review

I loved this book. I found myself looking forward to diving back into it whenever I could. I listened to the audiobook and read along with my hardcover. The audiobook was good, with a female narrator for Briseis and a male narrator for the men Achilles and Patroclus. I can’t praise the female narrator enough because she voiced Briseis so delicately, it really complimented the emotional vulnerability of the character which then accentuated the resolve and ferocity of her soul when it counted. 

I really, really have to commend Barker for opening my eyes and illustrating a different side of the story. Admittedly, my version of Briseis’ story was the 2004 Brad Pitt movie, which was one of the reasons that got me into both history and mythology. However, there’s a part of me now that can’t believe I believed the romance of it.

Barker offers an unromanticized account of the story of Briseis and Achilles, and I really liked that. Although, I am wondering if it’s slightly open ended for readers, where they can choose to see romance between it all if they see fit, but all in all I personally didn’t. 

Up until 50% the narrator was predominantly Briseis, and at that point, we’re suddenly given the male perspectives of Achilles and Patroclus. I really, really, really can’t emphasise enough how much I hated this. I think if Barker had introduced their voices sooner it wouldn’t have felt like they dominated the story thereafter, which regrettably it did. Achilles voice became so loud it effectively silenced Briseis. That is truly comical considering the title of the book is “The Silence of the Girls”, which may have been the whole point, but irregardless, it didn’t impress me. 

”Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

The other thing that I couldn’t miss was the repetitive writing throughout the book, and toward the end, it really had a dragging effect on my enjoyment. 

I definitely felt The Silence of Girls vividly illustrated the bleak nature of fighting a war, especially for enslaved women. I could see the beach of Troy, the Greek camp with its squalor of disease and rats and then the men gathered to drink themselves stupid clearly in my mind. The picture of soldiers beating, violating and raping women and young girls is clear, as is the heartwrenching moments of infant boys being killed purely because they’re not Greek boys. The only way I can explain reading about these tragic happenings is once you’re in the thick of reading it, there’s no going back. You’re seeing it through to the end. 

On that matter – the men. There’s so many take aways from this I’ll think of, but one that will truly haunt me, is the clear entitlement of men over women. The women are often referred to as “it”, so they aren’t just demeaned by being raped every evening, they’re reduced to something less than human. When I hear people say millennials and the generation of today are entitled… Honestly, check your history. Barker demonstrates very clearly that entitlement has existed for centuries, and in particular in this read: entitlement to women’s bodies, other people’s belongings and other people’s lands and borders. Entitlement pretty much comes hand in hand with all historical events. And as much as it was infuriating to read, it’s undeniable how entertaining it was to read about the machinations of arrogant men like Agamemnon and even Achilles, in what amounted to measuring egos. 

The Silence of the Girls is an immersive and gripping exploration of the tale of Achilles and the fall of Troy through Achilles and the quieter lens of Briseis. It’s well developed and mostly well paced too, it’s just a shame that Barker decided to amplify Achilles’ voice as much as she did, because as much as Briseis felt she was in Achilles story, I as the reader felt I was in hers and didn’t want another rehashing of Achilles – I can watch and read plenty about him – so Briseis should have been the solo singer here imo. The fact that isn’t the case is what detracted the book’s ‘hall of fame’ mark for me. But in spite of that, I still massively enjoyed The Silence of Girls and consider it a must read if you’re on the Greek mythology train or want to get on it.

I’m now particularly eager to read both A Thousand Ships and Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes which focus on the Trojan and Greek women’s stories respectively. And, one day, I’ll get around to The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller when I’m not so as disgusted with “the Great Achilles” found here in Barker’s retelling.

Buy It Now

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