Book Review – The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker

Pages: 323
Published: 30th August 2018
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Trigger warnings: Misogyny, sexual content, injury detail, animal sacrifice

Queen Briseis has been stolen from her conquered homeland and given as a concubine to a foreign warrior. The warrior is Achilles: famed hero, loathed enemy, ruthless butcher, darkly troubled spirit. Briseis’s fate is now indivisibly entwined with his.

No one knows it yet, but there are just ten weeks to go until the Fall of Troy, the end of this long and bitter war. This is the start of The Iliad: the most famous war story ever told. The next ten weeks will be a story of male power, male ego, male violence. But what of the women? The thousands of female slaves in the soldiers’ camp – in the laundry, at the loom, laying out the dead? Briseis is one of their number – and she will be our witness to history.

This tells an undoubtedly powerful story about one of the infinitely darker and more unsettling aspects of the Trojan War mythology, and in doing so the author eschews literary lyricism in favour of relaying the gory details. Told with a matter-of-factness that can occasionally prove jarring, it most certainly grabs your attention and evokes a handful of emotions, but also falls short in some areas.

There are numerous books that beautifully reimagine and even reclaim the lives of female characters from this mythology, yet here in the case of Briseis, the woman blamed for an almighty stand-off between famed warrior Achilles and his commander Agamemnon, the focus is very much on the harsh realities of her situation. It is grim, with the coarse language and descriptions seen throughout only serving to reflect that.

Briseis is a compelling protagonist and as the reader, you are of course appalled by the livelihood that has been forced upon her – that of a slave whose family has been slaughtered and is now merely a trophy of the Greek soldiers. The author uses modern parlance to bring her voice to life, which works well in many respects but I did have issues with the somewhat unsophisticated way she was presented as a character.

The main problem that occurs in this book surrounds the narratives, as it begins in the first person and for the most part this is effective, but then suddenly from part two there are some chapters told in the third person, which seemed random and a little out of place. From then on, it takes a broader picture of events involving other characters rather than focusing completely on Briseis, which arguably takes a bit of the originality away.

It is fair to say that the portrayal of most characters echoes the writing style. Briseis is headstrong but the story never loses sight of her hopeless existence, while it was interesting to see how the attitudes of some of the other women in the Greek camp were explored. Patroclus was shown as kind and considerate, but the rest of the male characters were written with scorn as they treat the captured women like objects. As for Achilles, he is examined in detail but merely comes across as petulant.

Overall, whether you love this book or not depends almost entirely on how you feel about the writing style and Briseis’ characterisation. This definitely has its pros and cons, giving an effective and hard-hitting view of what her life has come to, though it is sometimes too vulgar for my liking. It is a different take on the Trojan War for sure, and despite several powerful moments, it is rather a mixed bag.

In nearly 40 years as an author, Pat Barker has won numerous awards and developed a reputation for her blunt, uncompromising style of writing. Born in North Yorkshire, she studied international history at the London School of Economics in the 1960s before becoming a teacher.

She turned her hand to writing novels, finally seeing her first published work in 1982 with Union Street, the first of three books about working class women in Yorkshire. Since then, her most successful books are undoubtedly the Regeneration Trilogy, released in the 1990s, regarded by many as some of the best historical novels.

Published in 2018, The Silence Of The Girls was nominated for the following year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Women Of Troy, a follow-up of sorts, was released in 2021.

I had very mixed feelings about this book. The story was impactful and it definitely put a different – and compelling – perspective on a well-known story. I just struggled with the writing style at times.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐


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