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Book review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Gosh, I really like Greek mythology. First, I read Circe and The Song of Achilles, and now Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I have loved them all.

While Miller’s book about Achilles focused on Patroclus, the legendary fighter’s right-hand-man, this one was told from the viewpoint of the girl Achilles had chosen as his slave.

It is a viewpoint rarely told in literature, as the fighters, the gods and goddesses were most likely to capture the attention of writers.

I listened to a radio interview with Barker as she spoke about her novel, and she said she had been struck by the lack of women’s voices in books like the Aeneid and the Iliad.

Barker presented a different version of Achilles to the one depicted by Miller, focusing on different aspects of his story. While Miller saw Achilles as being a golden child who grew up to become a glorious warrior, from the slave girl, Briseis’s perspective, his weaknesses were clearer.

The story also told of the pain and cruelty behind the stories of triumph. Women who had seen their husbands, brothers and sons killed became the slaves of the conquering army. Their fear and desperation is clear in the pages as they serve their new masters as they return from battle.

I found the combination of mythology and realism in this novel to be very evocative, and was always curious to see what would happen to all of the characters.

The only minor reservation I had about the book was that Briseis always remains at a distance, perhaps reflecting her trauma and the constant mask she was forced to hold up to her captors. She always seemed frustratingly restrained, but I imagine that was how Barker wanted to portray her, given her lack of autonomy and her need to appease Achilles.

All up, it was a page turner that presented a fascinating and new perspective on a very old story.

I’m looking forward to reading Barker’s follow up, set after the sacking of Troy.

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