As you may have spotted, I am an absolute sucker for a good retelling. Particularly a retelling based on Greek mythology, so it’s no surprise that this book hit my tbr. In fact, I was recommended this book and lent a copy by my mother. Doesn’t she know me well?
My mothers copy was well worn. A good sign in my opinion. With it’s slightly tattered pages, I was keen to get this one home and to settle down to start it. I devoured this book in just a few short days, in between work and other commitments and oh my, what a few days they were! I struggled to put this book down and I can absolutely see why so many other readers have loved this book
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“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker is a powerful and thought-provoking retelling of the Iliad. Stripping away all forms of glamour, Barker lifts the veil on the terrible truth of the true cost of war.
The novel opens with the ancient city of Troy under siege by the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage war over the stolen woman, Helen. All eyes are watching to see the outcome of the war but none more so than Briseis. A former queen from one of Troy’s neighbouring kingdoms, Briseis has been captured by the Greek army and claimed as a prize of war. After watching her city sacked and her brothers and husband murdered, Briseis watches and waits in the Greek camp, forced to adjust quickly to survive her new life as a conquered woman who serves the Greek army. From the other captured women who must take on the roles of concubines and nurses, to Kings who use her and Achilles’ closest ally, Patroclus, who she forms an uncanny bond with, Briseis must navigate a myriad of relationships throughout this tale.
Briseis becomes a pawn between two of the most powerful Greek men, King Agamemnon & the warrior Achilles. As life unravels within the Greek camp, we see tensions rise between the men. Achilles, outraged by the actions of Agamemnon, refuses to fight, leading to a critical turning point in the war.
As the Greeks begin to lose ground to the Trojans, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army to what will become their final confrontation. The fate not only of Briseis but of her people hangs in the balance.
Barker’s novel takes a fresh perspective on the well-known stories of heroic men which have long dominated our understanding of the ancient world. Offering a nuanced exploration of the impact of war, you are fully immersed into the lives of those individuals who may well have been forgotten by history. The complex relationships Barker paints between these captured women are not only heart-wrenching, sisterly and warm yet at times, frustrating, terrifying and haunting. Barker holds nothing back in her graphic accounts of the conditions and experiences women did and still face within war. At the mercy of men, women who become slaves not only devalue themselves, but devalue one another; something which is truly quite difficult to swallow.
“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.”The silence of the Girls, Pat Barker
The latter part of this book felt it lost its way from the strong female narrative it started with. We see a shift in the novel towards Achilles and his perspective which for me, flitted between irritating and intriguing. These parts of the book probably could have been shorter – they weren’t all necessarily needed in my opinion. I’ve not yet read a tale in which we explore the maternal issues Achilles faces and how this affects his own relationships; this was definitely a new take on the hero we all know and love. I found this topic particularly interesting as, like most female readers, men written by women have a less grand or bloated feel to them.
It’s quite hard to review a retelling of Greek mythology without circling back to Madelline Miller. As many of you know, Circe is and remains my firm favourite from 2022. I have really enjoyed this book and felt that despite the two differing stories, Circe would be the one I would pick up time and time again. Saying that, “The Silence of the Girls” is a magnificent work of historical fiction that continues to resonate with me long after I turned the final page.
If you’re a lover of retellings and Greek mythology, do you think you’ll give this one a try?
Rating: ★★★★/5 stars