I’m a little bit of a Greek myth nerd, so when I had a chance to pick up a secondhand copy of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, I thought I should give it a shot! Unfortunately, I wasn’t the biggest fan. You can read why in my review below!
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.
CWs: war/genocide, slavery, violence, rape, victim blaming, blood/gore
The reason I wanted to read this is because I love Greek mythology and I especially loved The Song of Achilles, and I was very interested to read another perspective on this story, from a female point of view this time around.
The main problem is this: it isn’t actually a very different perspective. Sure, the story is mainly told from Briseis’ point of view, but the plot itself is still centered around the men because they are the ones fighting a war. So while this book says it wants to give the women in this story a voice, it immediately failed because it didn’t give them anything else to talk about then the men they served.
It was very clear that Barker was unable to reach her goal of centering the women of the Trojan War because she suddenly realized: damn, I’m going to have to actually retell Achilles’ story in order to make this into a coherent story. It’s like she had initially not realized that and had to bring in Achilles’ and Patroclus’ point of views to make up for that.
But actually, this isn’t even my biggest issue with the book. Because I do understand why it was necessary to include these POVs as well (otherwise the book wouldn’t have made much sense). The thing is, I actually felt like Briseis as a character had more personality in her little finger in The Song of Achilles. And she wasn’t even a main character there. So there is this focus of wanting to give the women a voice, but then the women aren’t really all that well developed at all. I couldn’t tell you anything about their personalities, just that they lived in horrible circumstances, which I don’t think is a very new realization.
I actually did think the book was well written, though, and I have to admit I’m just trash for this story, it’s one of my favourites. So I couldn’t fully dislike this novel either. I especially appreciated how it didn’t romanticize anything. It didn’t pull any punches. I jus think it would have been more impactful had the characters been more developed. Hell, both Achilles and Patroclus (who, I think, had only two chapters from his POV) had a more developed personality than Briseis.
Have you read this book? Is it on your TBR?
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