Review of The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

Posted: March 9, 2020 in nonfiction

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

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

The Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker

Hamish Hamilton

Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Jacqui Smith

This has been touted as a great feminist novel, but I don’t think it is, not in any positive sense. It is more a polemic against a certain kind of masculinity, toxic masculinity if you like. And against war; the sheer brutality of war in ancient times. It might be supposed to be a re-telling of the Iliad from the point of view of a woman, of Briseis, the former wife of Mynes, a son of the King of Lyrnessus, who becomes the slave of Achilles. But it’s still a story about men, about strutting male egos and the consequences of their butting heads. Achilles even gets to be narrator in a third-person sort-of way some distance into the book, although his ‘voice’ always feels a bit awkward. I’m not convinced that it is even possible to write a truly feminist Iliad, because it’s essentially a story about men and the flaws of men. Could you even write an empowering story about women in that setting? Maybe, but not, I think, at the centre of Homer’s story. Which this is.

I can’t say I liked this book. I did find it oddly compelling, and I did finish it (unlike the last attempt to re-tell the Iliad from a female point of view that came my way).  The author has a fine command of language, although it often feels way too modern for the subject. But it’s a brutal work, pulling no punches in the description of violence and of the treatment of women. If you are at all sensitive to rape, violence or profanity, then this is not the book for you.

(And to add to that, I’ve just seen a flash fiction shared on Facebook that in less than a hundred words tells a better – and far more positive – story, focusing on Cassandra, Odysseus and Penelope).

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