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Women of Troy #1

The Silence of the Girls

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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.

325 pages, Hardcover

First published August 30, 2018

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About the author

Pat Barker

37 books2,110 followers
Pat Barker, CBE, FRSL was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics.

Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels. She's married and lives in Durham, England.

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5 stars
23,587 (28%)
4 stars
35,670 (42%)
3 stars
19,324 (22%)
2 stars
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1 star
1,127 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 9,834 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,990 reviews298k followers
September 12, 2018
"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.
We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."

The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of Homer's The Iliad that brings in the stories of the women and girls who were, essentially, collateral damage in the Trojan War.

Briseis is the narrator. When Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks, she becomes a war prize for Achilles but quickly gets caught up in a dispute between him and Agamemnon. We experience life in the Greek's camp through her eyes and see all the injustices that take place. Barker's frank, gritty portrayal of a place swamped in stinking rats, alcohol and male ego is especially good in the first half of the book.

Whether intentional or not, the title calls to mind Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs and her story about helplessly sitting by while the lambs went to the slaughter. It's an interesting parallel. Briseis recounts the atrocities of war and how they affect women, unable to help the women around her as they are abused, raped and traded like chattel. It's a dark story, to be sure, and I found it very emotional and effective for just less than half of the book.
She was like a windflower trembling on its slender stem, so fragile you feel it can’t possibly survive the blasts that shake it, though it survives them all.

I wanted to give it a higher rating, but I can't shake the impression that The Silence of the Girls offers a fascinating premise and then kinda doesn't know what to do with it. The strong start becomes something tedious and repetitive once we settle into camp life, and especially so when the author introduces Achilles' perspective in the second half. It's disappointing when books are strong in concept but quickly wither out in execution.

I'm probably underselling it, though. 3 stars is not really a negative rating and there's some excellent writing here. Achilles is a complex character, portrayed both through his own perspective and through Briseis's. His maternal abandonment issues, plus his relationship with Patroclus, are told well. It is strange perhaps that in a book called The Silence of the Girls, Achilles is still the most interesting and multilayered character. Or maybe that's the point- who knows?

Barker's writing is mostly smart and witty, powered both by metaphor and some of Briseis's sardonic asides, but there are a few jarring anachronisms. Her use of British slang like "knockers" for breasts feels weird and out of place no matter how much the author assures us it was intentional.

It's really difficult to talk about this retelling of Greek mythology without bringing in Madeline Miller as a comparison. Well, I liked this one better than Miller's The Song of Achilles but less than her Circe. As far as books that give voices to the lesser-known women of ancient myths go, Circe still comes out on top for me.

CW: Rape (on-page); war; graphic violence; one incidence of self-harm.

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Profile Image for jessica.
2,555 reviews35.6k followers
March 14, 2019
sometimes it feels as if my hearts only purpose is to beat for greek mythology and this book is a gift, straight from zeus himself, to give me life.

this retelling of the trojan war is, simply put, stunning. whilst classic myths tell about the glory and conquests of men, this focuses on the quiet and unassuming presence of women. elegantly written from the point of briseis, the reader is given a unique perspective that is often overlooked.

‘we are going to survive – our songs, our stories. theyll never be able to forget us. decades after the last man who fought at troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their trojan mothers sang to them. we will be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares, too.’

(however, it is worth noting that although the title and this quote suggest otherwise, briseis is the only female point of view in this. and while that didnt lessen my reading experience, i know it might disappoint other readers, as the story doesnt quite live up to the feminist view that it promises.)

what really made me fall in love with this is how complex achilles is portrayed and how his relationship with briseis develops from the moment she is captured as a spoil of war, to the end of the ten year conflict, and all the deaths in between.

and although the achilles and briseis in this retelling arent quite my achilles and brisies (‘the song of achilles’ is my sworn gospel truth concerning all things trojan war), the character differences didnt lessen this story in the slightest. its still very faithful to the work of homer, but lends a modern feel to a timeless classic.

i really enjoyed this and i know any fan of the trojan war will be pleased with this, as well.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,404 reviews11.7k followers
Shelved as 'dnf'
October 25, 2019
30%, I am calling it quits

I guess what I don't understand is why, if you choose to rewrite The Iliad from the perspective of women, all these women do is talk about men, observe these said men, and that's it? Literally, 2 pages are given to Briseis's pre-capture past. The rest, so far at least, is her watching men do things, mostly disgusting things, and being abused, with an occasional break for an entirely too modern for the story feminist lecture. Why no time is spent on women nurturing relationships among themselves, on explaining their (to be sure rich) interior lives? Even if they are captured slaves, they still have pasts and stories to tell, right? I am not sure "The Silence if the Girls" would even pass Bechdel test. Does this book really have 2 women who have any kind of conversation about something other than men? If you wanted to write a book about voiceless, abused women in the ancient world, news flash - it was already achieved by The Iliad itself!

Say what you will about Offred, but even though she was passive, she still had some thoughts on subjects other than her Commander.

I am growing increasingly frustrated by these new stories with women's voices, when the women are only defined by their relationships to (mostly awful) men in their lives. I felt this way about Circe, Blood Water Paint, and now this novel. I love a good feminist tale, but these just don't do it for me.
September 7, 2018
I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
This is a really good historical novel. I didn't say historical romance because it is most definitely not one. If you're expecting a romance novel, you'd be dead wrong.

It's a brutal tale. If you're triggered by rape, you should stay away from this book, but it is just a fact, it is not used as a plot device.

The theme of this book is survival, or rather, subsistence. Briseis was a queen, now a concubine; a slave. Her fate is still many times better than the other survivors, all female, because every single man, boy, and male infant had been killed. No details were spared for our sensitivities in this book.
Iphition. Eighteen when he died. Achilles killed him with a sword cut straight down the middle of his head, the two sides falling neatly apart, like a split walnut, to expose the convoluted brain. Dropping to the ground, he fell under the hooves of Achilles’s trampling horses and the chariot wheels ground him deep into the mud.
This book is not only about Briseis, it's about war. Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Patroclus. It may be a brutal book, but it's beautiful in its stark brutality.
Profile Image for Puck.
670 reviews303 followers
October 15, 2018
"I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again."

This book was not what I hoped it would be. After reading Circe this summer and falling in love with it, I couldn’t wait to read more historic novels about Greek Mythology.
Yet where this story promised to be a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the girls (multiple!), I only get one girl. For a while.

The beginning and the first volume are very strong. Queen Briseis and the other women hide away while their town is sacked by the Greeks and their leader Achilles, and although they know what to expect, Barker softens no war-horror: babies murdered, gang-rape, young girls committing suicide to save themselves.
Through Briseis’ eyes we see it all happen, and how she’s later given to Achilles as a ‘gift’: the man who butchered her brothers now becomes her master.

A brutal and horrifying story, yet we keep following Briseis, and none of the other stolen women: the other concubines of Greek officers, the washerwomen, the poor slaves doing the lowest jobs. Not even ‘known’ Iliad women like Chryseis, Thetis or even Helen (where is the Iliad retelling from her perspective?!) get a voice, and the more I followed only Briseis, I more annoyed I got.

“Because, make no mistake, this was his story-his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.
Here I was [...] still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play.”

Because the lack of female voices wasn’t the worst. The worst was when Volume II started, suddenly Achilles himself takes over the story. Briseis is reduced to a silent witness, the (known) role she plays in the Agamemnon-Achilles conflict; Achilles often doesn’t even recalls her name.
What the Hades: I don’t care about the story of Achilles! I don’t care about his fight with Agamemnon, his relationship with Patroclus (which stays annoyingly obscure), his weird mother-issues: this all is told in the Iliad itself!

Yet that’s what this book becomes after the first 1/3 is done: a non-refreshing recount of the Trojan War, mentioning all the known events (the Fall of Troy, the ending of Achilles and Patroclus), leaving Briseis and the other women as a footnote in the grand tale.

So in a way, the title of this book is fitting: the girls indeed stay silent. What a waste of potential.
Profile Image for Meredith (Trying to catch up!).
815 reviews12.7k followers
November 22, 2018
“The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.”

The Silence of the Girls is a dark and weighty retelling of the Iliad. Told from the voice of one of the defeated, Briseis, the reader is offered a different perspective on the destruction of Troy.

Briseis, once a queen, is now a prized possession of Achilles--the same man who destroyed her city and butchered her family. Relegated to be Achilles’ “bed girl,” she is merely serving a purpose in the Greek camp. “And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.” Often referred to as “it,” she isn’t thought of as a human being. She struggles to maintain her place and function in a world run by her enemies.

Briseis physically can’t fight her enemies, and escape would leave her desolate and in danger; she can only find her power in one way: observation. She observes all of the details of the camp and sees what others do not. In doing so, Briseis gives a voice to those who had none: the slaves, the concubines, the less than human. She finds her purpose and her power in storytelling: “Silence becomes a woman.”
Briseis is a compelling narrator and I was often on edge waiting to see if she was going to survive the horrors of her new life. I felt the weight of her story and the empowerment of her words. However, I found the narrative to be bit temperamental and I could have done without Achilles’ perspective--if this was to be the story of those who were voiceless, why does the reader need to be inside the head of the so-called “hero?” In spite of this, The Silence of the Girls is a rich and thought-provoking tale. It is a complex and, at times, chilling read that shines a light on a new mythical heroine.
Profile Image for Melanie.
1,172 reviews98.8k followers
November 9, 2018

This was my pick for the September 2018 Book of the Month box!

“Looking back, it seemed to me I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles's story; and I’d failed. Because make no mistake, this was his story—his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter.”

Hi, my name is Melanie and 2018 has been the year that I constantly talk about my love for Greek mythos retellings. The Silence of the Girls is a feminist reimagining of Homer's The Iliad, centering on the Trojan War, but is told in a completely different light than ever before. Yes, we get to see the Trojans and Greeks battle and Achilles be the hero the world knows and loves, but this tale is all about a voice that is never heard in other renditions.

Briseis is a woman that has lost everything; her family, her city, her freedom, but this story gives her an actual voice, unlike all the other tales, but also shows how much more she was able to lose after Achilles is at the gate of her city. This is a very brutal book. Major content and trigger warnings for graphic murder, slavery, pedophilia, cheating, war themes, loss of a loved one, a lot of detailed rape, suicide, self-harm, abuse, PTSD depictions, animal death, sacrificial rituals, the death of children and babies, and heavy war themes and battle depictions. Please use caution with this book and make sure you are in a safe and healthy mindset.

“Another successful raid, another city destroyed, men and boys killed, women and girls enslaved—all in all, a good day. And there was still the night to come.”

I also want to say that I just reread The Song of Achilles a couple weeks ago, and I’m not sure if that heightened or lowered my reading experience. I will say that Patroclus is a sweet angel in every retelling of The Iliad and that didn’t change in The Silence of the Girls. But Achilles? This book makes you truly dislike him and… I just wasn’t expecting it. This book really shows how the stories are always told from a man’s voice and view, and they are always something to be glorified. But Pat Barker gives a voice to the women who are just background noise in all then men’s stories, deemed unworthy.

This reading experience is so unique because the Greeks are hailed as the heroes the entire time, but in this book we get to see behind the heartbreak and devastation they cause on and off the battlefield. Meanwhile, women are just prizes of the war that they never asked to be a part of. And even though Briseis has it a better than a lot of the women taken and enslaved by the Greek, seen as nothing more than spoils of war, her pain is never subsided and never viewed as lesser. Yet, that doesn’t make seeing things from her perspective hurt less. This book truly is heartbreaking.

“Nobody wins a trophy and hides it at the back of a cupboard. You want it where it can be seen, so that other men will envy you.”

My favorite part of this book, as heartbreaking as it is, is how each generation of children (girls, boys, nonbinary) are learning and living in this broken cycle with these expectations and gender roles forced upon them. The cycle never stops; it is just continuously passed down. Yeah, this is a Greek retelling trying to make a statement, but the parallels to our world in 2018 are thought-provoking and leaves an even scarier statement.

And there is a big emphasis on how war will also be passed down from father to son, generation after generation, along with their prejudices, their hate, and their need for revenge. Again, it is never ending and will never be enough. The suffering will just continue and continue being passed down. Meanwhile, the pain and fear will never subside.

“Silence become a woman.”

Overall, I think this is a really important book and I feel very fortunate that I was able to read it. I’ve always loved reimaginings of Homer’s works, but I’ve never read one like this before. Again, this is a really hard book to read and it gets very dark at times. But it really shows how rape will always be about power, not lust. And how men that lust for that power are capable of the evilest of things. And how these men can already have immense power, but it still won’t be enough. How these men and be rich, how they can be good-looking, how they can be the hero of the story.

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Buddy read with Imi at Imi Reviews Books! ❤
Profile Image for Jennifer ~ TarHeelReader.
2,182 reviews30.5k followers
September 17, 2018
All the stars to my new favorite read, The Silence of the Girls!

Today I have a book that came highly recommended by my friend, Paula, at Book Jotter, and my Goodreads friend, Tammy.

My Thoughts:

The Silence of the Girls is referred to as a masterpiece in its synopsis. Yes, it is absolutely a stunning masterpiece.

For over 10 years, the city of Troy has been under siege and in battle over Helen, a woman who can observe the war high atop a parapet within the city walls.

Another woman, Briseis, a former queen of a neighboring kingdom, has been captured by and lives in servitude of the man who murdered her husband and brothers, Achilles.

Agamemnon is the leader of all the Greeks, and he demands Briseis to be his, but not without consequences. Achilles, the top fighter for the Greeks, refuses to return to battle. As a result, the Greeks quickly lose ground in their siege on Troy.

Briseis’ voice is powerful. She speaks for herself but also for all of the thousands of hidden women involved in this war.

Pat Barker re-weaves a classic where women are present (not invisible), where they find strength among each other (and are not weak), and where they are depicted as living, breathing humans with opinions and emotions.

The writing is precise and glorious. While you may “know” some of these characters from popular Greek mythology, Briseis’ perspective and Barker’s rich storytelling combine in a way that each character is robust and complex in ways not depicted before.

Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is a study on war and its indelibly human impact as told by a resilient and brave (mythological) woman.

Thank you to Doubleday for the complimentary ARC. All opinions are my own.

My reviews can also be found on my blog: www.jennifertarheelreader.com
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,710 reviews25k followers
October 30, 2018
Pat Barker continues on the themes of war, providing a brutally visceral portrait in this telling of The Iliad, adding the voices of the women missing from the original. When her family is wiped out by the forces of Agamemnon, Briseis becomes the premier warrior, Achilles, trophy prize. Barker provides complex and nuanced characterisation, of the women as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, whilst giving us an Achilles that is less a hero, more a troubled man with his own demons. We get the clash of male egos when Agamemnon demands Briseis for himself after losing his woman. A bitter Achilles agrees but refuses point blank to fight for him any more. As we are immersed in the daily horrors of war, Achilles's pain and despair overflows after a personal tragedy but still has him able to feel compassion towards the grief of Priam. The Silence of the Girls is a stellar novel, beautifully written, where the stories of the women are told, made authentic with their opinions and views, amidst the never ending cost of war they are forced to endure. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Rachel.
550 reviews926 followers
August 7, 2018
It's so hard to divorce my love of the Iliad from my experience reading The Silence of the Girls, but I think that's partially what makes this such a fantastic retelling. Told primarily from the perspective of Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, Pat Barker's novel endeavors to tell the unsung story of the female characters who litter the background of the Ancient Greek epic. And she does a pretty brilliant job.

The pleasure I derive from reading retellings, and especially retellings of Homer, is twofold: I want to see the author's unique slant on the narrative and feel that they're contributing something new to the story, otherwise what's the point, but I also want to be reminded of my love of the original. On both fronts, The Silence of the Girls is a resounding success. Pat Barker captured the grandiosity of these characters and events in a way that really struck a chord with me; I felt constantly on the verge of tears reading parts of this novel because Homer's musings on fate and free will and grief and glory - in short, what makes the Iliad so epic and timeless - are all echoed in Briseis' narrative. But Barker also manages it all from the sidelines, zeroing in on the experiences of a war slave who has no choice but to watch events unfold around her with no personal agency. Briseis is fully aware that she is not the hero of her own story, that she's narrating these events as a spectator to her own life. You could argue that at times she almost has a bit too much awareness of this fact, but as she's narrating these events from years later, the time and perspective have clearly allowed her to form the big picture.

I also felt these were some of the best depictions I've ever read of these characters, notably Achilles and Patroclus. I find that certain writers have a difficult time reconciling Achilles' brutality with his heroism, and likewise Patroclus' ruthless streak with his kindness. But Barker frankly addresses that, in times of war especially, these characteristics can easily coexist. I really felt that these characters had walked straight out of the pages of the Iliad into Barker's story, in a way that I haven't seen achieved by any other retelling I've read (except maybe Ransom by David Malouf, which until now has been my go-to recommendation for modern Iliad retellings). Briseis is a very minor character in the original, and as such, Barker had a lot more leeway with her protagonist, but I was also satisfied with the result; I was immediately invested in Briseis and I thought she added a much-needed and underrepresented perspective to the story.

My biggest issue with this novel the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. Though this retelling focuses on Briseis, so much of the backdrop and what drives the characters' motivations hinges on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, and for Briseis to narrate that to us any more than she already does would verge too heavily into 'telling rather than showing' territory, so I really didn't mind the occasional inclusion of the male perspectives. But the first person/third person switch feels arbitrary and messy, especially since Briseis herself spends so much time observing and narrating Achilles's actions. I felt like Barker could have played with this a bit more; played up the uncertainty that maybe we aren't reading Achilles's thoughts, but rather, Briseis' interpretation of Achilles's thoughts.... but nothing is really made of this opportunity, as it's clear that we're supposed to be in Achilles' head, but rather unclear why we've switched over to his thoughts at any given moment.

But aside from that, this book was pretty much everything I wanted it to be. It's subversive yet subtle; affecting yet understated. It captures the epic scale of the Iliad and the quiet moments of beauty in the story and everything in between. It's definitely a subtler feminist retelling than the likes of Circe and The Penelopiad, but I have to say I much, much preferred The Silence of the Girls - though I would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoyed the aforementioned novels. But for all my talk of retellings and Greek classics, I really don't think you need prior knowledge of any of that before starting Barker's novel - it's a stunning story that should stand on its own just fine.

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books, and Pat Barker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Tammy.
523 reviews438 followers
June 3, 2019
Royal Briseis is presented to Achilles as a prize for sacking and destroying Lyrnessus a neighboring city of Troy. So this is a re-telling of the final few weeks of The Iliad’s Trojan War from the perspective of a “bed-slave.” While Briseis has it better than the abject slavery of many other female captives her life is, in its own way, just as brutal. The prose of Part One is bewitching but it falls apart for a few chapters within Part Two where it veers off into clichés as well as attempts at conveying conversation with a sense of realism. You’ll recognize this sort of thing: “ We-ell, ye-es, no-o, list-en” which is annoying, distracting and unnecessary. We get back on track afterwards. The characters are gratifyingly complicated, distressed and conflicted. After all, isn’t this why these classic legends endure?
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
720 reviews1,114 followers
February 23, 2021
“Silence becomes a woman.”

Briseis is a noble woman who becomes a slave when her city is attacked by the Greeks on their way to Troy. She is taken by Achilles as his ‘prize of honour’ as are hundreds of other women.

Those not as ‘lucky’ are passed around between men, forced to sleep on the ground and beg for scraps of food.

This is the Trojan war from behind the scenes. Not the glorious battle and noble deaths, but those who didn’t choose this. Those taken from everything they’ve known, forced to watch their relatives raped and/or killed.

I know the Trojan War very well, so none of it was particularly new to me. But it is important to reread well known stories from a different perspective, to be reminded it isn’t all glory and power. It is rats, plague, gangrene and rape.

The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is because it is supposed to be the women’s stories, their point of view. But there were quite a few chapters focused on Achilles and Patroclus - I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just if a book is advertised as from the women, I’d expect this to be the case consistently throughout.

“We’re going to survive - our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams - and in their worst nightmares too.”
Profile Image for ✨ Helena ✨.
381 reviews1,006 followers
August 6, 2020
“What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginable distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”


If I had to describe this book in two words, I’d pick…hauntingly beautiful. It’s dark and bloody and gritty, while simultaneously being evocative and atmospheric and heart-breaking. AND I LOVED IT. This was what I wanted from The Song of Achilles. (I know, I know. I’m one of the few people who didn’t like it, but I wasn’t a fan of how Patroclus was portrayed there.)

“Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’ compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her. Achilles’ prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.”

This was also what I wanted from Circe, where it was truly told through Briseis’ eyes, rather than having her be stuck on an island, while finding out what’s going on in the world solely when visitors decided to drop by for a visit. I was also interested by the sheer lack of mythological involvement here. There are references to the gods here and there, from Apollo to Thetis, but for the most part, this is about the human condition in warfare. This made the novel a lot more realistic and added to the poignancy, in my opinion. At the end of the day, this novel is a retelling of The Iliad told – primarily – through Briseis’ eyes. Once the queen of a Trojan city, she was captured and given to Achilles as a prize for his successes on the battlefield.

“This is what free people never understand. A slave isn’t a person who’s being treated as a thing. A slave is a thing, as much in her own estimation as in anybody else’s.”

From then on, we see her anger at the treatment of the other women in the camp, her grief at how many she loved were slaughtered in battle, her confusion when the men treated her as less than human and worse than their animals, her disbelief when – every once in a while ��� someone would show her an act of mercy. Women were treated HORRENDOUSLY here, from strenuous labour to constant rape to even some of them coming to love their captors. This was certainly an emotionally-heavy read.

“And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”


But what I love most is that Pat Barker didn’t gloss over any of it and she most certainly didn’t romanticise any of it. You know what’s happening is horrible and you can see that these “fierce young women” are bravely fighting for their survival, doing whatever they must, in order to see another day. I’m in awe of their strength. You see the men struggling with battle wounds and the plague (while they expect the women to patch up their wounds and ailments), when they put the women through much worse and perpetual hardships, and yet none of them stop to recognise the irony. Oh, how women are taken for granted and for the “weaker sex”, they definitely can endure a lot more than their male counterparts. The abuse and the trauma that they go through … it’s hard to even fathom having to live in conditions such as those.

“At that time, he was probably the most beautiful man alive, as he was certainly the most violent, but that’s the problem. How do you separate a tiger’s beauty from its ferocity? Or a cheetah’s elegance from the speed of its attack? Achilles was like that – the beauty and the terror were two sides of a single coin.”


In addition, I should probably mention that Achilles’ perspective does come in later, which moulds him into a more three-dimensional character, rather than seeing him as solely Briseis’ oppressor. It’d be pretty hard to truly retell the Iliad from only Briseis’ eyes because she wasn’t involved in all of the politics and warfare…and at the end of the day, the Iliad is primarily a war epic.

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”


I’ve always been fascinated by the legendary Achilles. I even consider him to be one of my favourite Greek heroes. However, I must admit that I enjoyed the not-so-savoury light that Pat Barker paints him in. He has no interest in sex. He has no interest in peace. He has no interest in politics. He has no interest in anything besides pride and bloodshed…doesn’t that remind you of a certain war god that no one can stand (cough Ares cough)??? xD

“He’d become Achilles. Isn’t that love’s highest aim? Not the interchange of two free minds, but a single, fused identity? I remember seeing them on the beach the night I’d followed Patroclus down to the sea. This was what I’d glimpsed then.”

We don’t know what kind of love Achilles and Patroclus shared. In fact, two camps of classical historians have been debating it for ages. It could be the love story in which cousins - who happened to be closer than brothers - share. It could be the love story in which only two soulmates could possibly share. It could be both. Regardless, this book captures their bond so poignantly and subtly that no matter which group you fall under, you’ll be satisfied.

“Now, he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains. There’s no way of avoiding the agony – or even of getting through it faster. It’s got him in its claws and it won’t let go until he’s learnt every lesson it has to teach.”


When Patroclus died, you could see how much it affected the entire Greek camp. Patroclus was the one shining beacon there…the one person who showed the slave women kindness, the one person who was friendly with all of the soldiers, the one mediator who kept peace between Agamemnon and Achilles. His death hit them all with a profound sense of loss that couldn’t be replaced, but in a way, they were all united in their mourning of him.

“The defeated go down in history and disappear, and their stories die with them.”

Ultimately, we all know how the story ends. The siege of Troy occurs. The Trojans are defeated as the Greeks emerge victorious. Achilles goes to meet Patroclus in the afterlife. But Briseis lives. It was time for her to seize control of her own life. It’s amazing how true the quote above is though. How much do we actually know about Trojan culture? Not a lot, as there are very few surviving sources. Dead men tell no tales and the defeated are forgotten throughout history. The Greeks won, and it’s the Greeks we remember today.

“What I came away with was a sense of Helen seizing control of her own story. She was so isolated in that city, so powerless – even at my age I could see that – and those tapestries were a way of saying: I’m here. Me. A person, not just an object to be looked at and fought over.”

Despite everything that Briseis went through, she realised that the war wasn’t about her, or even Helen of Sparta, the woman whose face “launched a thousand ships.” It didn’t matter that Helen was taken by Paris. It didn’t matter that Agamemnon and Achilles fought over Briseis. It didn’t matter that Patroclus was slain by Hector. At the end of the day, the Trojan war was over and SHE was the one left standing … and her story had yet to begin.

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

I was ten years of age when I first read the Iliad and I’ve been re-reading it over and over as I’ve grown up ever since. It’s quite honestly my favourite piece of literature of all time. So, it takes A LOT for me to love a retelling of the Iliad because I have such high expectations when it comes to retellings of it. But Pat Barker truly did the epic justice. Every few moments, I was writing down memorable lines because so much of it struck a chord with me. This was such a well-written novel and I highly recommend it…not only to fans of the classics, not only to those interested in gender studies, but to everyone. It’s a genuinely wonderful book and I’d be first in queue if Pat Barker ever decided to tackle another classic from a female perspective.

“We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too.”

August 29, 2021
I’ve only recently started reading novels based on Greek Mythology. This is the second one I have read so far, but funnily enough both books were based on the same Greek tale although they gave differing perspectives.

The Silence of the Girls tells the story of the war between the Trojans and the Greeks. However, it is written from Briseis point of view rather than that of one of the men (e.g. Achilles/Patroclus).

In the previous Greek mythology book I read I fell in love with Briseis. I loved being able to delve into her perspective and her story a little more. However, her story isn’t for the faint of heart. Pat Barker writes with harrowing honesty, highlighting the deeply disturbing parts of the war that may be glossed over in other books.

My only issue with the book was that sometimes the story would briefly change to Achilles’ perspective. I found this confusing and often it took me a while to realise that this change had occurred. I also found this a bit frustrating when the novel was meant to focus on the story from a woman’s point of view. That being said, Barkers descriptions were so vivid that at times I felt my mouth watering over the food or my heart raced for the splendor/horror of the sights.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and cannot wait to read the next novel in the series. I would recommend this to anyone that loves Greek mythology novels. However, if you loved the song of Achilles I would prepare yourself a little before reading this novel as it takes a very different and much harsher approach.
November 11, 2018

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Man, people are getting all up in this book's face because it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Of course it doesn't read like Madeline Miller. Do you see the name Madeline Miller on the cover? No; it says "Pat Barker." It's like marching up to your step-mom and saying, "YOU'RE NOT MY REAL MOM." Well, duh. But that doesn't necessarily mean that she's a bad person, either.

THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS appeared on Netgalley one fine summer day, and I did what I do with all ARCs: applied for it, and then promptly forgot about it until it was about to expire. When I saw that it was about Ancient Greece, however, I immediately prioritized it a little higher on my to-read list, because I love learning about antiquity. Ancient Rome, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece - that sort of thing is my jazz. I could listen to it all day.

I actually read this book at the perfect time because I had just finished another book called A THOUSAND SHIPS, which is about the events in The Iliad that lead up to the Trojan War. In THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, everyone is already in the thick of it, and things are nearing the end. The narrator is Briseis, a casualty of the Trojan war, who ends up becoming a war prize/concubine of Achilles after watching everyone in her home be slaughtered or raped depending on their gender. She is also part of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles, which ends up resulting in the turning point of the war, AKA When Achilles Loses His Sh*t™.

Most of the story is narrated by Briseis, but some of it is also narrated by Achilles. I wasn't really interested in his narrative, because he was a Sad Boy with Mommy Issues™ who Freud would have a serious field day with (seriously, the "sex" scenes in this book were wtf). It is not a book for the faint of heart. The author really does not shirk on the physical and sexual violence. As William Tecumseh Sherman said, "War is hell." But it's especially hell for women, who are basically considered chattel as far as the men in this book are considered, and whether they're being sacrificed on a pyre, spat on, abused, assaulted, or treated with the most condescending sort of compassion possible, they are still considered objects - objects resented, cherished, despised, coveted, but objects all the same.

I remember reading somewhere recently that Greek heroes aren't really the same as American heroes, in that many of them were not Good People. They did awful things (see Hercules/Herakles) in the name of glory. Many of them would probably be closer to villains, now that I think about it, who are far more consumed by vainglory than our (almost self-abnegating) selfless heroes. Actually, now that I'm thinking about it, I remember exactly where I heard that quote: it was in Lindsey Ellis's review of Disney's Hercules (a must-watch; she really has the most excellent feminist/cinematographic rhetoric). And I think she has a good point. Achilles, too, is awful. Pat Barker lays that out clearly.

Barker also makes the odd choice of writing this book with modern language. Margaret Atwood did that too with the PENELOPIAD, but that feels like more of a post-mortem retrospective, whereas this takes place in Ancient Greece - and yet, they're talking like a bunch of modern British people. What gives with that? I saw that a lot of people who were criticizing this book took issue with that (yes, the Madeline Miller people, mostly) and I'm more sympathetic to this; the Greek myths were lyrical and dramatic, and its odd to have that sort of storytelling removed from the equation: odd and jarring.

That said, I did enjoy this book. Parts of it were slow (Achilles) and it was unpleasant to read (horrific scenes), and told in an odd way, but the modern language also makes it easier to understand what's going on. I would not read this in lieu of The Iliad, but it makes for a nice supplement.

Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!

3 stars
Profile Image for emara.
58 reviews252 followers
September 23, 2023
'They won't want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won't want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won't want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they'll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhapes? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.'

this talks about the women affected by the trojan war. they watched their sons, brothers, and husbands get killed, had to give their daughters as slaves, and were taken from their homes. they were forced to serve and care for the same men who destroyed their cities and killed their men.

'This man killed your brothers, he killed your husband, he burned your city, he destroyed every single thing you'd ever loved - and you were prepared to marry him? I don't understand how you could do that.'

'Perhaps that's because you've never been a slave. No, if you want to pick at something, why don't you ask me why I'm telling this as if it were a communal event? 'Our' grieve, 'our' losses. There was no 'our'. I knelt at Patroclus' feet and I knew I'd lost one of the dearest friends I ever had.'

the only male in this book i somewhat tolerated was Patroclus. he still disgusts me but i would take him over achilles anyday. i feel like he was just forced to deal with what the men were doing bc that was their role. he was way too kind to all the women, he def deserved better than achilles.

what disappointed me was the limited povs we got. given the title, you would assume it would be told from multiple womens pov, which would have been so much better. instead, we only got briseis and then we got achilles although that was told from third pov. it pissed me off how we got some long ass chapters told from his pov.

i hate achilles 🔪

'it seemed to me I'd been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles' story; and I'd failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story - his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn't matter. 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.

'His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.

Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles' story - and failed. now, my own story can begin.'

i didn't know how to rate this. it was either 3 or 4 stars for me. this is honestly a good book, i enjoyed it and that's crazy for me since i don't particularly like greek mythology at all. this was new and good. if you wanna get into greek mythology or just wanna read about the women, i would definitely recommend this. therefore, i think it deserves 3.95 stars.


'Out there, beyond the roiling waves, in the calm place where the sea forgets the land, were the souls of my dead brothers.'

'The huts were small, the paths between them narrow, everything cramped - and yet that space seemed infinite, because the camp was our entire world.'

'Perhaps if they realized we're not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?

'We're going to survive - our songs, our stories. They'll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We'll be in their dreams - and in their worst nightmares too.'

'This is what free people never understand. a slave is a thing, we much in her own estimation as in anybody else's. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.
Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,491 reviews2,718 followers
May 13, 2018
I've been trying to escape not just from the camp but from Achilles' story

This is the best modern re-telling of the Iliad that I've read - even if it does perhaps extend too far, taking in the aftermath of war as told in Athenian tragedies: the Hekabe, and the Trojan Women especially.

Told in a straightforward narrative, the majority in 1st person from Briseis with intermittent 3rd person chapters from the POV of Achilles, this is both accurate to the tone, register and thought-world of ancient Greek epic and also a fully-formed novel in its own right. In that sense, it reminds me a little of Atwood's The Penelopiad, especially with its attention to female experience - though it certainly lacks the savage playfulness of Atwood's piece.

It's perhaps a little unfair that the premise claims that female voices are muted in the story of the Trojan war: Helen's weaving, which Barker rightly draws attention to, has been claimed by classical scholars as a form of female 'authorship' making her a parallel to Homer himself; and Athenian tragedy makes female voices - both lamenting and raging - central to the culture's experience. The Andromache, Hecuba, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia, Helen and others all make interventions in the Homeric story, telling 'the distaff side' of the tale.

Nevertheless, there's certainly room for a modern 'Iliad' and especially one which side-steps the Mills-and-Boon-esque versions of writers like Madeleine Miller. Here we have a far more robust Achilles and (yes!) a female slave who *isn't* in love with him.

Barker's experience of writing about war stands her in good stead and there are some echoes forward of trench warfare that draw comparisons with her WW1 work. But this book stands on its own feet: a glorious, subtle and wonderfully Homeric version of a tale made fresh again for a modern audience.

Many thanks to Penguin for an ARC via NetGalley.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
810 reviews1,267 followers
March 22, 2019
"Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy... A tragedy worthy of any number of laments—but theirs is not the worst fate."

History is told from the point of view of the historian. Because of this, we often do not know the entire truth; we do not know both sides of a story. We do not hear how "the other" thinks and feels. We have little written by women from the ancient world and thus we do not know how they might have thought and felt about the world they lived in, their particular struggles and heartaches, their dreams and successes. We can only speculate what those might be.

In Homer's The Iliad Briseis was a minor character, daughter of Briseus and an unnamed mother (hey, she's a woman! She doesn't need a name!). When the Greeks conquered her city during the Trojan War, Briseis was given as a war prize to Achilles. In The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker delivers a beautifully written account of Briseis, told from her point of view. She is brought to life in vibrant detail and I absolutely loved this book. We get to see what life was like for the captured, the women who became slaves to the victors. What was it like to be taken from your homeland and given over to a man or men as an object, usually a sex object? To lose not only your family and home but also your identity, dignity, and freedom? With stunning insight, exquisite prose, and rich character development, Ms. Barker gives a voice to Briseis, a voice that had been silenced for millennia.

Fans of Madeline's Miller's The Song of Achilles will love this book, as will those who are interested in stories of ancient Greece. I highly recommend it!

4.5 stars rounded up to 5. A half star was removed because the author had an irritating (to me) habit of writing "we-ell", as in "we-ell, I don't..." "we-ell, obviously...". It made Briseis sound immature and vapid and would have been better written simply as "well". Thankfully, this occurred less than 10 times, though after the first it annoyed me (perhaps I'm just overly particular). That slight complaint aside, the book was brilliant!
Profile Image for Hannah.
594 reviews1,055 followers
June 1, 2019
I am in love. Nearly everything about this book worked for me. While I do think that parts of that are due to the fact that it hits a lot of sweet spots of mine, I also think it really is an incredible achievement. I adore the story of the Trojan War though - so this was probably always going to work for me.

Pat Barker sets out to give a voice to Briseis, whose importance in the Trojan War cannot be overstated but who remains mostly voiceless in the Iliad. Briseis narrates the vast majority of the book and I found her voice compelling and incredibly well realized. The audiobook narrator (Kristin Atherton) was pitch-perfect in a way that wonderfully added to my listening experience.

Perhaps my favourite part of this book I adore for many reasons is Barker's treatment of agency here. Agency and fate are at the heart of the original myth and I think this is really where her retelling shines. Obviously, Briseis' agency is taken away and it is the thing she suffers most from. So much that the rapes and the humiliation and all the other horrible things happening to her seem to not even register for her (which I find very interesting as a narrative choice!). But even Achilles has very little agency in the grand scheme of things (an idea that Barker very heavily leans into and that I found very interesting). And when he does have choices he consistently does the wrong thing - until his agency is taken away again.

Briseis is a wonderfully realized character: I adore that Barker allows our first glimpse of her to be an ambivalent one, she has unkind thoughts and seems fairly self-involved while also trying to be a good person and loving her brothers. I find that a lot more interesting than perfect characters. Still, overall Briseis shows kindness and strength in the way she deals with her experience and her relationships to the other women in the Greek camp are beautifully done. Briseis' part is told in first person and as such we follow her intimately in a way that Achilles' third person narration does not achieve (a brilliant narrative decision). I appreciated this choice a lot: in a way Achilles is the one who remains voiceless and whose more humanizing behaviour is forgotten and only his awfulness is remembered (in this fictional universe where the Iliad is a historical text).

In short, I loved this. A lot. I find it a super interesting text in the way it deals with feminist issues in a way that more closely mirrors traditional myths and I adore that Barker lets the main characters behave in way that is maybe more unconventional for the modern reader but that makes perfect sense in the (pseudo-) historical context.

You can find this review and other thoughts on books on my blog.
Profile Image for Tahani Shihab.
592 reviews870 followers
May 2, 2021

سرد جميل وحزين لوقائع ملحمة الإلياذة الإغريقية عن حرب طروادة من وجهة نظر المرأة. تتمحور الرواية حول شخصية بريزيس زوجة الملك ماينز. على عكس الملحمة القديمة التي تتمحور حول بطولات أخيل.

تعبّر الكاتبة عن معاناة بريزيس، أثناء هجوم الإغريق بقيادة أخيل على مدينتها يرنيسوس، وانتصارهم في تلك المعركة. بعد نهب وإحراق مدينتها. تجد بريزيس نفسها وقد تمّ اختيارها لتكون جائزة للقائد أخيل. الذي قتل زوجها وإخوتها الأربعة.

رواية آسرة تعبّر عن معاناة النساء أثناء تلك الحروب الملحمية. عن خضوعهن وصمتهن لكل الأفعال الشنيعة التي كانت تُرتكب بحقهنّ من اغتصاب وعبودية. وعن الثمن الباهظ للحروب الدموية قديمًا، وعن مصير النساء أثناء الغزو والانتصار.


"أَخُِيل العظيم، أخيل المتقد، أخيل اللامع، أخيل الإلهي. عجبًا كيف تتراكم الألقاب؟! لم ننعته يومًا بأي من هذه الأسماء، كنا نسميه "الجزار".

“ما لا يفهمه الأحرار أبدًا، ليست الأَمَة شخصًا تتم معاملته على أنه شيء، الأَمَة شيء بالفعل، في تقديرها هي كما في تقدير أي شخص آخر”.

“كان غالبًا أجملَ رجُل على قيد الحياة، كما أنه كان الأعنَف بالتأكيد، لكن هذه هي المشكلة، كيف لك أن تفصل جمال نمرٍ عن ضراوته؟ أو رونق فهدٍ عن سُرعته في الانقضاض؟ هكذا كان أخيل، الجمال والترويع كانا وجهَين لعُملة واحدة؛.

“هل كنتِ حقًّا لتتزوجي الرجل الذي قتل إخوتك؟
ـ حسنًا، قبل كلّ شيء، ما كنتُ لأحظى بفرصة الاختيار، أجل ـ على الأغلب ـ أنا كنتُ أَمَة، والأَمَة قد تفعل أي شيء، أي شيء على الإطلاق، كي تكفَّ عن كونها شيئَا وتُصبح شخصًا من جديد.
ـ لا أعرف كيف يمكنكِ أن تفعلي ذلك.
ـ لا، بالطبع لا تعرف، فلم يسبق لك قط أن كنتَ عبدًا”.

“المهزوم يعبر التاريخَ ويختفي، وقصصه تموت معه”.

“الأسى لا يكون إلا بالعمقِ الذي بلغهُ الحب قبلَه”.

“أنا أفعل ما لم يفعله رجل قبلي قط، أقبِّل يدَي الرجل الذي قتلَ ابني”. ترددت أصداء تلك الكلمات من حولي، وأنا واقفة في كوخ التخزين محاطة من كل صوب بالثروة التي نهبها أخيل، من مدن تحترق، قلتُ في نفسي: وأنا أفعل ما أُرغِم عددٌ لا يُحْصى من النساء على فعله قبلي، أفتح سَاقَيَّ للرجل الذي قتلَ زوجي وإخوتي”.

“الموتى لا يهمهم إن حظوا بجنازة كبيرة أم لا، هذا من أجل الأحياء فقط لا أكثر، الموتى لا يبالون”.

“لو افترضنا مرة واحدة، خلال كل هذه القرون، أن يفي الآلهة المراوغين بوعدهم فيُمنح أخيل، المجد الأبدي مقابل موته المبكر تحت أسوار طروادة، ماذا سيصنع أناس تلك الحقب البعيدة التي لا يمكن تخيلها بنا نحن؟ شيء واحد أعرفه بالفعل: لن يرغبوا بالواقع الوحشي للغزو والعبودية، لن يرغبوا أن يتم إخبارهم عن مجازر الرجال والفتيان، واستعباد النساء والفتيات، لن يرغبوا أن يعلموا أننا كنا نعيش في معسكر اغتصاب، لا، سيميلون إلى شيء أكثر نعومة بالإجمال، ربما قصة حب، لا آمل إلا أن يستطيعوا استيعاب مَنْ كان العشاق.
Profile Image for Marquise.
1,747 reviews610 followers
April 22, 2021
Sigh. Another terrible Trojan War retelling that started as an excellent premise, though hardly an original one. Retelling Homer's epics from the women's perspective is all the rage and has been for a long while, unlike what some might think, with varied success.

The Silence of the Girls isn't one of the successful female POV retellings, unfortunately. It overpromises and underdelivers. It tells you it's the story of the girls, and gives you Briseis (and an unrecognisable Briseis at that). It tells you it's about the women, and gives you . . . Achilles. Last I checked, he is a man, and besides that one stint as a cross-dresser to hide from the recruiting party set on bringing him to Troy, he's never had anything female about him. Where are the girls? Hecuba, Helen, Cassandra, Chryseis, Andromache... All absent, all endnotes, all mentions in passing, all ignored in favour of Briseis and Achilles.

You could at least have been honest and admit you merely wanted to do a gritty, unromantic, rape-filled take on the highly romanticised Achilles/Briseis relationship, and I'd have applauded it. Instead, we get this cringy, flat characterisation and poorly handled storyline that almost feels like you are being made fun of for believing the title and the promise in the blurb.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,304 followers
September 3, 2020
Now shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020

"'Silence becomes a woman.' Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying."

Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Iliad, the story of Achilles at the siege of Troy.

The epigraph to Barker's novel is what she has said in the inspiration for this book, a passage from Philip Roth's The Human Stain:

"‘You know how European literature begins?’ he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. ‘With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.’ And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. ‘“ Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled , Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.” And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.’"

That girl is Briseis whose voice is entirely absent from the Iliad. Barker's aim and achievement is to give her back her voice.

Briseis was the wife of King Mynes, ruler of the Trojan city of Lyrnessus. Even there, living in luxury, she notes that her husband is blind to the tensions between her, his mother and her slave girl lover:

"Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then 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?"

As the novel opens, when she was aged 19, the city was conquered by the Greek coalition, Mynes and all of the males were slaughtered (her father, three brothers and husband by Achilles) and the women shared among the conquerors. Briseis was given as a prize to Achilles for his bravery in the conflict.

Later in the siege of Troy, King Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces, was forced to return one of his prizes, the 15 year old Chryseis, to her father, a priest of Apollo, to appease the god and stop a plague that is decimating the camp. In turn he demanded that Achilles, who had led the demands for him to return Chryseis, hand over Briseis to him. Achilles does so but then withdraws himself and his troops from the conflict, tipping the balance of forces in the Trojans favour. Achilles is only persuaded to rejoin the battle when his best friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hector while wearing Achilles own armour.

Barker retells this story but in Briseis' first person words:

"I’d become something altogether more sinister: I was the girl who’d caused the quarrel. Oh, yes, I’d caused it – in much the same way, I suppose, as a bone is responsible for a dogfight."

I am writing this as someone whose own knowledge of The Iliad is fairly limited - Briseis is not a name I would have previously recognised. But that wasn't an issue reading the novel, it functions very well as a stand-alone self-contained text (with perhaps the occasional resort to Wikipedia for a who was that, or what happened next), and from others' reviews it seems to function equally well for those immersed in the original.

I also haven't read many of the obvious peers for comparison, notably Madeleine Miller's novels such as Curve, so my review is in absolute not relative terms.

Barker's telling isn't a modern rewrite but rather historical fiction. It sticks very closely to the original, only allowing herself leeway where there is more than one version (she has little time for the Achilles' heel story for example, she also has ).

And it isn't a feminist rewrite - and perhaps all the better for that. Her Briseis is a living breathing woman of her time, she knows the rules by which she is required to live, but that doesn't stop her having her own views.

The novel starts strikingly, immediately reminding us that history is written by the victors, here the Greeks not, as in Briseis case, the Trojans:

"Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up.

We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’."

The story takes us from the fall of Lyrnessus through to the death of Achilles and the fall of Troy, but in Barker's retelling we get less of the glory and more of the human reality of blood and guts, less of the heroic Greek warriors and more of the stories of the Trojan women, bereaved and handed out as trophies to the very men who killed their own loved ones. After Briseis is first is forced to sleep with Achilles:

"I lay there, hating him, though of course he wasn’t doing anything he didn’t have a perfect right to do. If his prize of honour had been the armour of a great lord he wouldn’t have rested till he’d tried it out: lifted the shield, picked up the sword, assessed its length and weight, slashed it a few times through the air. That’s what he did to me. He tried me out."

As later Priam comes secretly to the enemy camp to plead with Achilles for the return of his son Hector's body, he says:

"'I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.'

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought:

'And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.'"

Briseis key aim is to restore her status as a person, not a thing to be traded as a war trophy.

Contemplating the prospect of becoming Achilles wife, she enters in to a dialogue with the reader:

"'Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?'

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything , anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

'I just don’t know how you could do that.'

Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave."

As her relationship with King Priam temporarily reminds others of her status:

"Automedon blinked, forced, for a moment – and I honestly think it was for the first time – to see me as a human being, somebody who had a sister – and a sister, moreover, who was King Priam’s daughter- in-law.

As she contemplates trying to return with Priam to the doomed Troy:

"I saw my sister, my brother-in-law, the warmth and safety of their home – and above and beyond all that, the great prize of freedom. Me – myself again, a person with family, friends, a role in life. A woman, not a thing. Wasn’t that a prize worth risking everything for, however short a time I might have to enjoy it?"

One challenge the author faced is that there is a practical limit to how much of the story Briseis can have witnessed. While she succeeds in inserting her into several crucial moments, and at times has her relaying indirect reports of what happened elsewhere, for around a quarter of the novel Barker resorts to replacing Briseis' first person narration with a privileged third person narration from the perspective of the male characters, particularly Achilles (or Briseis later understanding of their perspective? the narrator's identity is a little unclear).

I can understand why she has felt it necessary to do this, although it would have been a braver decision to have done without it, and allow some of the well-known drama between Achilles and Agamemnon simply not to be present on the page and merely seen by the impact on Briseis (and to the reader via their background knowledge of the story).

The third person sections do allow the novel to also present a (revisionist) character study of Achilles himself, one that present him as something of a Mummy's boy, still a child to his immortal mother the Nereid Thetis. Briseis first sees this, but without knowing what she sees, when she witnesses Achilles swimming (unusually for the time) and then seemingly speaking to the sea:

"He seemed to be arguing  with the sea, arguing or pleading  . . . The only word I thought I  understood was ‘Mummy’ and that made no sense at all. Mummy?   No, that couldn’t be right. But then he said it again: ‘Mummy, Mummy, ’like a small child crying to be picked up. It had to mean something else, but then ‘Mummy’is the same, or nearly the same, in so many different languages. Whatever it meant, I knew I shouldn’t be hearing it, but I didn’t dare move and so I crouched down and waited for it to stop."

Later a privileged third person section gives us Achilles perspective:

"He is, first and foremost, ‘the son of Peleus’– the name he’s known by throughout the army; his original, and always his most important, title. But that’s his public self. When he’s alone, and especially on those early-morning visits to the sea, he knows himself to be, inescapably, his mother’s son. She left when he was not quite seven, the age at which a boy leaves the women’s quarters and enters the world of men. Perhaps that’s why he never quite managed to make the transition, though it would astonish the men who’ve fought beside him to hear him say that. But of course he doesn’t say it. It’s a flaw, a weakness; he knows to keep it well hidden from the world. Only at night, drifting between sleep and waking, he finds himself back in the briny darkness of her womb, the long mistake of mortal life erased at last."

This theme - that each of the warriors who fought and died is ultimately a mother's son - is brought out powerfully when Briseis first gives us the long list of those slaughtered by Achilles in the assault on Troy and how he vanquished them, and then gives us their mother's memory of them, for example:

"And then –

Laogonus and Dardanus, brothers. They clung to the sides of their chariot, but Achilles hooked them out of it, as easily as picking out winkles with a pin. And then he killed them, quickly, efficiently, one with a spear thrust, the other with his sword.

And then –"

"But you see the problem, don’t you? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably nameless names?

In later life, wherever I went, I always looked for the women of Troy who’d been scattered all over the Greek world. That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, can that be one of Priam’s daughters?
I met a lot of the women, many of them common women whose names you won’t have heard.

And so I can tell you that the brothers Laogonus and Dardanus weren’t just brothers, they were twins. When they were little, Dardanus’speech was so bad his own mother couldn’t understand him. ‘What’s he saying?’she’d ask his brother. ‘He says he wants a slice of bread,’Laogonus would reply. ‘You’ve got to make him talk,’ the boys' grandmother said. ‘Make him ask for it himself.’ ‘But I was busy,’ the mother told me. ‘I’d have been stood there hours if I’d listened to her.’

And Briseis realises, defiantly, that by fathering children with their Trojan women, the Greeks have accidentally ensured the survival of their culture:

"We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too."

One slightly odd note is sounded by the occasional imposition of slang speech patterns in dialogues, for example:

"‘Oooh, sorry I spoke.’"

"He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me."

"I’d survived. We-ell, in a manner of speaking I’d survived."

"‘Not like he does.’ Achilles looked up at Patroclus. ‘Oh, c’mon, when have you ever seen me drunk?’"

"‘He’s not human,’ Ajax blurted out. ‘Well of course he bloody isn’t,’ Agamemnon said. ‘His mother’s a fish.’"

If done consistently I would have less of an issue: we can't have the characters in an English language novel speaking vernacular ancient Greek, and standard British English is as good a representation as any. But the effect seems to have been rather randomly sprinkled in the text (and often in italics as if to draw attention).

But that minor issue aside, this is a strong retelling.

As the story concludes, Briseis realises that her attempt to tell her own story has to an extent failed. But Achilles is dead and her life is only just starting:

"Suppose, suppose just once, once, in all these centuries, the slippery gods keep their word and Achilles is granted eternal glory in return for his early death under the walls of Troy . . .? What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times?

One thing I do know : they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.

No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were. His story. His, not mine. It ends at his grave.

Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin."

Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the ARC. 3.5 stars. Reduced to 3 on later reflection as the novel's flaws have remained with me as much as it's strengths.
Profile Image for Donna.
543 reviews182 followers
October 22, 2018
**Warning—this review also contains minor spoilers for the book The Song of Achilles.**

While reading The Song of Achilles a few months ago, I was intrigued by a supporting, though unforgettable character in that book named Briseis who tugged at my heartstrings throughout the story. In mythological tales about the Trojan War, she was princess of Lymessus, a Trojan city destroyed by the Greeks in an all out assault led by Achilles. When only 19, Briseis was captured and given to Achilles as one of his spoils of war, well aware she was expected to serve him in all ways possible, even though she was royalty and he had slaughtered her entire family and her husband. And as if that weren’t bad enough, sometime later, she became the object of a dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army. This led to further mistreatment of Briseis, and led to Achilles feeling dishonored and refusing to fight in the war until he was appeased.

As portrayed in Song of Achilles, Briseis was a proud, intelligent, and compassionate woman who drew on her inner strength to survive not only physically, but emotionally. Her relationship with Achilles was tepid and vastly different than portrayed in this book, and she even forged a close friendship of sorts with Achilles’ longtime friend and lover, Patroclus. I found her completely intriguing. Because of this, I wanted to know more about her. So when I saw that this book was told from Briseis’ perspective, and it would give a woman’s eye view of the war and of life during those times, I jumped at the chance to read it.

But what a disappointment this book was compared to The Song of Achilles. This book had none of the beautiful writing and in depth character studies of that book. Instead, the writing in this book was mostly flat, same as the characters, not allowing me care about them. It was mostly a case of all tell, no show. The intense relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was mostly muted here, and the friendship between Briseis and Patroclus in this book was close in name only, compared to Song of Achilles, which actually showed what that friendship consisted of in great detail.

And as for this story being told from a female perspective to supposedly put a different spin on it, what that meant in this book was detailing all the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and servicing the men in the camp between their bouts of fighting and raping, as told by a bitter and disgruntled Briseis. Maybe this was more realistic than the more idealized tale told in Miller’s book, but It was tedious and it barely touched on anything remotely feminist in nature. It was not an empowered or enlightened view, but a resigned and helpless one, a mainly passive one, at that, even more so than in Miller’s book. Plus, beginning in part two, the story started alternating between Briseis’ first person viewpoint and that of Achilles, told in third person. What a strange choice for a book that was supposed to tell things from a woman’s viewpoint, except to make the point that the women would not be heard over what the men had to say, after all.

In short, this book added nothing new to what I already knew of this time and place which I admit is limited as I’ve never read The Iliad which this story is based on. Plus, for some strange reason, the author chose to use modern language with grossly anachronistic idioms and turns of phrase that were at odds with the very carefully detailed description of that ancient world from a physical standpoint. It was obvious the author did much research to make that world feel authentic. So why would she make everyone sound like modern day people using words like hangover, and have them say things like “We-ell” and “No-oo” as if they’re being snarky?

So basically, everything I enjoyed about The Song of Achilles was missing from this book, and it even contradicted some of the things I liked best about that book. So I recommend that you skip this book and read The Song of Achilles instead for something truly memorable on this subject, and for a version of this story that honors Briseis much more than what you’ll get in this book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for nastya .
448 reviews287 followers
September 12, 2022
2022 reread
So this was one of my first greek retellings I've read and loved. Only after reading this book, I went back to the source, read Iliad and Odyssey, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and other famous retellings by Mary Renault. Naturally, I was curious what I'll think of it this time. And you know what, it's still dark and powerful. The brusqueness of the prose just suits the brutality of the story so well. There's no beauty here. Fantastic. Also can't wait for the last entry in the trilogy, the retelling of the incredible family drama of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Elektra, Orestes and poor Cassandra, who was drawn into this mess.

Original thoughts
You see, feminist retellings of myths are in vogue. There's a niche. And so I guess publishing houses use them to market their new books.
I don't think this is a feminist retellings per se, however it was sold to public.
It's a book about war, this is an anti-war book. You wouldn't expect less from the woman who wrote two trilogies about WW1.
And this book is about the price of war for everyone, the way war annihilates, humiliates, rapes. The way war destroys or maybe distorts soldier's psyche (that's what Achilles' chapters are for). Because if Achilles is a soldier who fought close combat and killed everyday for 10 years, he will be very disturbed and broken person, right?
And Briseis is passive and there's no girlboss moments and speeches in here. Because she is a POW and she tries to survive. That's what the scene with her cousin in the beginning was about. It was about a choice. And she decided to survive and endure.
This is by far my favourite retelling and the news about continuation of this story makes me extremely happy!
Profile Image for Faith.
1,900 reviews534 followers
September 26, 2021
I loved this retelling of "The Iliad". While it is not absolutely necessary to have read the classic story first, I do recommend at least taking a look at the Wikipedia description before reading this book. This book addresses the Trojan War, primarily from the point of view of Briseis, the queen whose husband and brothers were killed by Achilles (the accomplished warrior who was the son of a mortal and a goddess). Some of the chapters are written from the point of view of Achilles. Briseis was awarded to Achilles as a battle prize and she became his bed-slave. All of the women in the book were collateral damage in the endless war. They were shown kindness only by each other, although there was also a kind side to Patroclus, who was the friend, and rumored lover, of Achilles. Briseis was later taken by Agamemnon, who turned her into his spittoon. The resulting dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon caused much tragedy.

I can't review this book without mentioning "The Song of Achilles" by Madeline Miller, which is much better known and covered the same territory, but was too much of a romance novel for my taste. While that book focuses on the Achilles/Patroclus dynamic, this book takes a broader view. While it does not ignore their relationship, it digs deeper into other characters - the parents fighting for ( and losing) their children, the enslaved women and the exhausted soldiers. Pride, hubris and fate are all in play here. Both books are good, but this was definitely my favorite of the two.
Profile Image for William Gwynne.
376 reviews1,706 followers
March 6, 2023
Review of The Silence of the Girls on my YouTube channel! - William Gwynne

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”

A Trojan retelling, as we have seen or read many, many times. But this time from the perspective of Breseis, partnered with the wonderful writing style of Pat Barker, who explores themes expertly whilst also conveying the brutal and dangerous situations the characters are thrust into from a variety of backgrounds. The Silence of the Girls is truly something unique.

In The Silence of the Girls we see all the major players of the Trojan War, mostly from the Greek side though, with our only perspective being with Breseis, who is herself a Trojan, but one who finds herself quickly in the heart of the Greek camp, interacting with Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon and many more of the Greek lords.

“Grief's only ever as deep as the love it's replaced.”

The Silence of the Girls shines a light on many of the women who fade into the background in the majority of retellings, depicting the great disparity from before to during war. Breseis is a brilliant central figure. Whilst we are rooting for her, she makes many a mistake, and we see how her circumstances change her into becoming more bitter, less trusting, and far more cunning, which are all needed to survive. It was interesting watching a character mostly acting a s a spectator as great events who unfurl, who is mostly caught in the storm of change, but unable to alter them.

Pat Barker does a particularly brilliant job at exploring humanity’s preoccupation with legacy. Going to war, we see many who are depicted as being motivated by the desire to live in the memory of those generations to come. It is a theme that still has a great role in modern soceity. Morality does not come into many actions, but thought of legacy does. Into this, we are shown those doubting their way, and those who only feel strengthened by the death and destruction they witness.

“We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.”

Agamemnon, Achilles, Odysseus, Patroclus and the more familiar characters are depicted in a significantly different many than I have ever seen before, but the way they interact and the manner the story comes together made these presentations click with me. At first it took a little while for me to open up to the idea of these figures being so different than in anything else I have read, but by the end I thought every decision by Pat Barker was fantastic.

Breseis is taken slave by Achilles, a trophy as she was a former Trojan lady of high rank, and in this position we are witness to the goings on of both slaves and lords, as Breseis is forced into a world full of violence, politics and death. Every day presents its own dangers, and throughout it is the idea of powerlessness which acts as the only constant.

“Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.”

A fantastically written story that balances and explores themes with effective subtlety and success. The characters are compelling and well-realised, with those you fall in love with, those you hate, and a whole host in-between. Pat Barker shows herself again to be a master as she blends all the elements of a story to create something truly fantastic.

Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews585 followers
April 8, 2019
I think Pat Barker is one of my favourite writers about war. The Regeneration Trilogy is the book series I compare all other World War I literature to. What I enjoy about Barker's style is she balances often intensely visceral and clinical descriptions of violence with a tender and complex exploration of the emotional impacts of warfare.
I read Silence of the Girls much less as a retelling of The Iliad from a female perspective but more as Barker demonstrating that, even if we have moved from swords and spears to rockets and missiles, the resulting "collateral damage" is almost identical.

There are many ways to view this text. The Guardian review has it as a "Feminist Ilaid", The Atlantic as "The Iliad meets #Meto" and certainly Briseis is as our clear-eyed guide to all the misfortunes of women. Furthermore, I also thought Barker managed to convey a very realistic and complete portrait of grief in the later sections in which Achilles voice dominates. I appreciated that Barker has managed to strip this story down from all the Homeric heroism and classical beauty to take us back to the reality of things - rats, boredom, sexual violence, the ancient era version of shell shock and the appalling loss of life. Her decision to convey this using anachronisms of speech enhanced the story for me but your reaction to this could vary depending on how much you want this to be a faithful Ilaid experience.

Leaving you with an excerpt from one of the more effecting parts for me, a list of names and deaths followed up by anecdotes of these men as boys told from their mothers. Devastating.

And so began the greatest killing spree of the war.
As it happens, I know the names of all the men he killed that day. I could recite them to you, if I thought there was any point....

Dryops. A sword swipe to the neck that very nearly took off his head.
And then -
Demuchus. A spear in his right knee. As he stood there helpless, waiting, Achilles finished him off with a sword thrust to his neck.
And then -
But you see the problem, don't you ? How on earth can you feel any pity or concern confronted by this list of intolerably nameless names?

Fingers-crossed for a Womans Prize 2019 short-listing for Pat Barker.
Profile Image for Bee.
212 reviews2 followers
February 1, 2020
Don’t bother! This is a very pretentious and a not-so-clever book. It is a very poor retelling of a story everybody half-literate knows well. It is so not the voice of the “girls” that at some point Achilles starts to tell his own story... #facepalm

The main character is an arrogant minor queen (yes yes, I know who Briseis is) who falls slave/bride to Achilles and fails to reflect on the times she owned slaves and the similar behaviour of the men in her family, city, kingdom. She says she hates Achilles and all those men but as the book goes on she puts an increasingly humane light on Achilles that finally he is a man in love who lost a lover, friend etc.

Does the author really think that the men of Troy would never have raped and pillaged if they were the conquerers so much so that the protagonist finds comfort in Prium’s kindness?

Where are the accounts of the relationships between different classes of slave women, within the same group and between different groups, their feelings towards these rapist men and the child/ren they bore after bore after being serially raped? Where are the thoughts and feelings of the slave women and their own perspective on politics, the pillaging and raping, the war?

Lastly, why “girls”? These are women, these are young women but woman no less. Girl is a degrading word to call women who were raped, put to slavery, gave birth to children and in the case of some actually perpetuated and supported the rule of war economy and the suffering that ensued.

My point is telling this story from women’s perspectice should have included more about women and how they relate to the world around them. I believe in the Illiad, Briseis already gets her own chapter/book. If you’re going to re-tell a known story with a new perspective, do it so, do not half-arse it like your grandmother who likes to think herself very progressive.
Profile Image for Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer.
1,822 reviews1,383 followers
June 13, 2021
This book was I thhink shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Novel award, the 2019 Women's Prize for fiction and the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award - so it is perhaps appropriate that I have now read it three times (in 2018, 2019 for a Book Group and 2021 ahead of the publication of its sequel)

Now it’s full of frightened old men who think their day is over (and they’re probably right) and overexcited young men who jabber till the spit flies, though it’s only stuff they’ve read in the paper. The women have gone very quiet. It’s like the Iliad, you know, when Achilles insults Agamemnon and Agamemnon says he’s got to have Achilles’ girl and Achilles goes off and sulks by the long ships and the girls they’re quarrelling over say nothing, not a word … I don’t suppose men ever hear that silence.”

Even first time around I came to this book relatively late – but which time it had already received excellent reviews from a number of my Goodreads friends which both detail the book and discuss some of its strengths and flaws – see in particular these reviews from Paul, Neil and Trevor.


From my viewpoint, the concept of the book was similar in many ways to Philippa Gregory's retelling of The War of The Roses (Cousins' Wars) across a series of historical novels – featuring various female characters.

One thing that unites Paul, Neil and Trevor is their unease/disappointment in the abandonment not just of the first party narration, but of Briseis female viewpoint, and its increasing substitution with a privileged third-party narrator written instead from Achilles view (i.e a more traditional male viewpoint).

Gregory also has to deal with this issue of there being a limit to how much of the story a female character would have witnessed – her approach is to fill in the missing action by the heavy use of exposition - sometimes in narrative between characters and sometimes by the first (or third) person female narrator summarising their thoughts. That technique can be clumsy at times, when it works however it captures well the way rumours emerge and shift after a battle – and the fear of those waiting at home for news of those they love, and of the overall flow of the battle and how this will impact on their own lives.

Importantly I think Gregory never abandons the viewpoint of her female characters as Barker does here – and while I think I can see what she is trying to do (making it clear – as the quotes in Trevor and Neil’s review pick out – that really this can never be the story of Briseis when she is held as a pawn and sex slave, her story only really beings when Achilles is dead) I think ultimately it is to the slight detriment of her aims and effectively drowns out Briseis, something Barker acknowledges:

I remember how he'd held my chin in his hand, turning my head this way and that, before walking into the centre of the arena, holding up his arms and saying "Cheers, lads. She'll do"" And again, at the end [referring to Alcimus who Achilles instructs to marry Briseis so as to keep her safe after his own expected death] holding my chin, tilting my head: "He's a good man. He'll be kind to you. And he'll take care of you".”

That voice, always so dominant, drowning out every other voice"

PS – the irony that a group of men are choosing to criticise how a woman tells a woman’s story is not lost on me!

The other area I have seen criticised in the book is the anachronisms in the story.

Here I have to say the criticism was I think ill-founded.

Pat Barker has been very explicit that – unlike her World War I books which feature real characters and where she is scrupulous to try and make their behaviour conform to known historical facts, in the smallest detail – here she felt free to introduce anachronisms and enjoyed the freedom to do so.

In her view, the original story is a myth, and the idea of respecting historical detail in a myth - even the concept of an anachronism - simply makes no sense.

And the "anachronisms" are blatant, clear from almost the first page and I think important.

References to weekends or crowns or sweets are rather overshadowed in my view by the fact that the siege of Troy is blatantly lifted straight from the WWI Western Front, or Achilles and his fellow elite officers singing a real 20th/21st century rugby song at dinner.

And I thought it was clear what Barker was doing here – drawing a line from male dominated violence and casual disregard for women of the myth, through into the gung-ho attitudes to war of the officer class at the start of WWI (many in their heads inspired by classical battles) and further into the casual aggression and misogyny of many men today, all of it taking place against the silence of the girls.

The quote with which I start my review is from Pat Barker's Life Class set in 1914 London - a quote which appears to presage this book albeit a link of which Barker herself has said she was not consciously aware until it was drawn to her attention by a reader.

Profile Image for Ushashi.
157 reviews77 followers
January 8, 2022
Silence of the Girls provides a brutal take on the Iliad from the perspective of the women taken captive during the siege of Troy. Briseis, a queen of a small Trojan city, is captured and given to Achilles, the man who killed her husband and brothers, as a spoil of war. Later, Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon fall out over the claim to Briseis, leading to the near-defeat of Greece, Patroclus's death, and Achilles' rampage causing the fall of Troy. Everyone knows this story. I have not read the Iliad, but from what I gathered, the original does not give the women any voice, even to the ones at the center of it all. Then again, the world of 800 BC was not that concerned about what the women went through in a war. Wars made the tales for men's bravery and glory.  

That's why I love the retellings and reinterpretations of the ancient epics. Barker strips the war of all its romanticism of glory. The book is visceral in its depiction of war. In the opening sentence, Briseis describes Achilles as 'the butcher', not with any of the other great epithets given to him presumably by the Greeks. The first part is written completely from her POV, the story of a woman and a slave. It shows the brutality of the war, how the women were abused, how even the best of the men didn't consider anything else to be a possibility. It is also a story of someone trying to hold onto their identity, their personhood. It shows how different people find different ways to survive the same situation. Briseis sees Trojan women trying to keep their Greek masters pleased, even be in love with them, as a way to get a better life. She couldn't bring herself to like them, but later in a different situation, she accepts that a slave would do anything to stop being a thing and go back to being a person. One of the strongest sentences in the book was enough to sum up the difference in how the war affected men and women. King Priam tells Achilles while asking for his son Hector's body back "I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son." and Briseis thinks "And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.”. Even today war has the same difference in the lives of men and women. Silence of the Girls is set on the Iliad, but it could be the story of any woman in any war.

The only thing that let me down was the increasing number of chapters from Achilles' perspective in the later part of the story. It made the climax of the book the same as the climax of the Iliad - Patroclus dying and Achilles grieving over it. Admittedly, in one of the last chapters, Briseis accepts that it was still Achilles' story in which she had very little control. Yet I would have liked to not see that much of a shift in focus. Rather, some chapters with the POV of the other women might have been a great addition. A very small section between Helen and Briseis left me wanting for a much bigger story from Helen's perspective.

But limitations aside, Barker gives a much-needed view on the oldest of the stories. I'll be looking forward to reading the sequel.
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