What a tumult of emotions this book unleashes. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a re-telling of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of Briseis, a captured Trojan queen who is enslaved in the Greek camp and claimed by Achilles as a prize of war. No matter that he killed her husband and brothers; that was the way things worked. Women were chattels without a voice, without feelings.
This is not a simple retelling of a myth, it is a comment on the danger of male-dominated warfare fuelled by anger, hate and a sense of competition while the women are treated as possessions. The first action of a conquering army was to slaughter all babies and pregnant women, to prevent more males being born which may be future enemies. Barker has long written about war, and about women; now she combines the two with a microscopic focus on Briseis. It is an emotional story, overwhelming at times. Some women adapt, others collapse; some fall in love with their captors. The details of daily life are steeped in realism – the butchering, the piss, the blood – and Barker makes you believe it all.
Structurally, the [albeit, short] sections that didn’t work for me were those told by Achilles. I was disappointed to leave Briseis and resented the intrusion of a male voice. In preference I would have preferred to hear from other women – Hecamede perhaps, Ritsa or Iphis – in the style of Barker’s first novel Union Street where the stories of the women intertwine so by the end of the book you have a full picture.
At the beginning I worried about getting my Homer and classical history references straight, but realised this was taking me away from Briseis’s story. As soon as I stopped trying to remember The Iliad, I became entirely wrapped up in the book. Pat Barker never disappoints. She writes with passion, anger and earthiness about war and is a writer who never shirks from the difficult stuff.
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