BOOK REVIEW: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Briseis was a queen before the Greeks came. Now she is a slave to the man who killed her family.

Described by some as a feminist Illiad, I was so excited to get my hands on this book and read for myself. I love the classical epics and anything with a feminist angle is right up my street, but sadly this tale fell short in my estimations. For a story that was being touted as breaking the silence of the women there was an awful lot of focus on Achilles still.

The character of Briseis started out brilliantly strong, offering a unique perspective on the war that isn’t usually portrayed in the tale. You really get the sense of fear and loss of self that her character feels alongside the other women – they are just objects to the men that sack their city. It’s a harrowing read at times, made even more so I think because of Briseis’ pragmatic descriptions. At points it seems like she accepts what has happened, at others she pushes back against the futility of the situation and strives to remain true to herself, as I think anyone would do in that situation. It’s an internal battle every day for her to keep going, mirrored by the physical battles going on around her. As the novel goes on though, I think she loses some of that strength and she begins to grate; you want her to do something to combat the situation but instead she becomes more of a whining character as the plot plays out.

As mentioned before, there is still a lot of focus on the character of Achilles which I found tiresome. There are already many retellings and reimaginings out there with him at the centre and many of them do a better job than this novel (I would highly recommend The Song of Achilles for this). If all the descriptions were through Briseis’ eyes I think I could understand it, as he’s portrayed unsympathetically, but there are a few points where the focus is solely on him, and not on her perception of him. I feel like this is a huge shame and lets down the initial premise of the book.

Sadly, I was left very underwhelmed by The Silence of the Girls. I felt it didn’t do the women’s stories justice, and ended up being another male-centric Troy tale.

The Silence of the Girls was published by Hamish Hamilton and is available here.

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Pat Barker

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Pat Barker was born in Yorkshire and began her literary career in her forties, when she took a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. Thirty-five years later, she has published fifteen novels, including her masterful Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the UK’s highest literary honour, the Booker Prize. She lives in Durham and her latest novel is The Silence of the Girls.

Reviewed by Amber Mears Brown

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