The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a number of novels published recently which look at Greek myths and legends from a feminine perspective. In the last few months I have enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, and For the Immortal by Emily Hauser, the story of Hippolyta the Amazon queen. Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls is another, this time bringing to life the character of Briseis and the events of Homer’s Iliad.

When the city of Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks during the Trojan War, Briseis loses her husband, King Mynes, and her father and brothers. The surviving women are shared out amongst the Greek conquerors as prizes of war and Briseis finds that she is given to the great warrior Achilles as a slave. The events which follow, such as the quarrel which breaks out between Achilles and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, over the possession of Briseis, and the fate of Patroclus when he impersonates Achilles on the battlefield, will already be known to anyone familiar with the Iliad. If all of this is new to you, though, don’t worry – no knowledge of Homer’s epic is necessary and Pat Barker makes it very easy to follow what is happening.

Most of the novel is narrated by Briseis herself and I found her a very engaging narrator. The nature of her story and the ordeals she faces make her an easy character to sympathise with; I was given a good understanding of how she felt about losing her freedom, becoming a slave and being at the mercy of the men responsible for murdering her family and destroying her city. This is quite a dark novel and Barker doesn’t hold back when describing the brutality of the men in the Greek army, both on and off the battlefield.

I was surprised to find that there are also some chapters written from the perspective of Achilles, who is very much the villain of the book. Although seeing Achilles’ side of the story certainly didn’t make me warm to him at all, it was good to get a different point of view, especially as it allowed us to see scenes and hear conversations that took place when Briseis was not present. However, because of the title of the book, I think it would have been nice if more female characters had been given a voice so that the silence of more than just one girl could be broken. We do meet some of the other women in the Greek camp, but only through Briseis’ eyes and Briseis is the only one we get to know in any depth.

I did really enjoy this book, though. It’s well written, very readable, and a fascinating portrayal of Ancient Greek society. If you’re interested in reading more about Briseis, you could try Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston and For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser. She also appears in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which will give you a very different view of Achilles as well!

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

16 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

  1. Elle says:

    This was exactly my quarrel with the book, though I do think it’s mostly fantastic and I’m slightly surprised not to see it on the Booker Prize longlist.

    • Helen says:

      I probably wouldn’t have minded the Achilles chapters if the title hadn’t led me to expect more female voices. It’s a great book anyway, but I think it could have been even better!

  2. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

    Great review – I’ve received this one from NetGalley too and it sounds so good, I’m looking forward to getting to it! I didn’t read The Song of Achilles until last year, so it’ll be really interesting to get a completely different take on this story. Pat Barker is doing an event for this book in conversation with Mary Beard at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival which I am very excited for, it seems like Greek myth retellings are everywhere right now.

  3. Café Society says:

    This is on my library list and if I think it good enough I may include it on the short list for next year’s Summer School along with one or other of the Miller books. I normally enjoy Barker’s work so I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • Helen says:

      I hope you enjoy this one. You could probably have some interesting discussions at Summer School if you read both this book and The Song of Achilles – the two authors’ interpretations of the same characters are very different.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I’m surprised this wasn’t listed on the Booker list as well and wonder if it will appear on next year’s Women’s Fiction list instead. She is a favourite author of mine, but I can’t think of anything else she’s done which is quite like this, so I’m doubly curious about it. If you’ve read her before, are there parts of her style which you feel come through in this retelling too?

    • Helen says:

      This is actually the first book I’ve read by Pat Barker, although I do have some of her other books on my TBR and feel as though I should have read them before now! This does sound like a slight change of direction for her, so I will be interested to see how her earlier work compares.

  5. Carmen says:

    Great review, Helen, as always! 🙂 You give me a good feel for Briseis’ story. I will keep my eye on this one. Is this a recent publication? I hadn’t heard of it. I have in my next year’s line-up The King Must Die by Mary Renault and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. Let’s see how it goes. 😉

    • Helen says:

      Yes, this is a new book and due to be published later this month. I enjoyed both The King Must Die and The Song of Achilles, so I’m glad you have them lined up for next year! I’m actually about to start reading The Bull from the Sea, which is the sequel to The King Must Die. 🙂

  6. Judy Krueger says:

    I have been in on this Greek theme this year, so this one sounds like it would fit. And I have always meant to read Pat Barker.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve always wanted to read something by Pat Barker too and I’m glad that now I have, even though her other books all sound very different from this one. This book would definitely fit with your Greek theme!

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