4 May 2020

Review - The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

    Title: The Silence of the Girls

    Author: Pat Barker


When her city falls to the Greeks, Briseis's old life is shattered. She goes from queen to captive, from free woman to slave, awarded to the godlike warrior Achilles as a prize of battle. She's not alone. On the same day, and on many others in the course of a long, bitter war, innumerable women have been wrested from their homes and flung to the fighters.

As told in The Iliad, the Trojan War was a quarrel between men. But what of the women in this story, silenced by their fates? What words did the speak when alone with each other, in the laundry, at the loom, when laying out the dead?

In this magnificent novel of the Trojan War, Pat Barker summons the voices of Briseis and her fellow women to tell this mythic story anew, foregrounding their experiences against the backdrop of savage battle between men. One of the contemporary writers on war and its collateral damage, here Pat Barker reimagines the most famous of all wars in literature, charting one woman's journey throught it, as she struggles to free herself and to become the author of her own story.

My Thoughts:

This is the story of the Invisible, the story of the Oppressed. Of the ones who the songs barely mentioned despite their courage which often was greater than the fighting men's. The ladies who suffered and were forced to endure the dire consequences of the bloody war under the walls of Troy are often but a footnote in books that retell the events of the Iliad. Pat Barker decided to honour them at last. 

The Silence of the Girls starts with the sack of Lyrnessus and the capturing of its women. The first half of the events are told from Briseis' point of view who's given to Achilles as a war prize. In Lyrnessus she was a princess, now she's a slave. At home she wasn't allowed to walk the streets unveiled, now all she owns are rags and she's subject to the obtrusive leer of the Greek fighters.

One of the most shocking issue that this novel deals with is how the women were objectified. None of the men (except for Patroclus) treated them as human beings. The humiliation was sometimes hard to read and made me extremely angry. 

Achilles wasn't depicted as the great hero in this novel. The author focused on how he had been abandoned by his mother Thetis and because of this he grew up to be a miserable man-child. He was cruel and cold, but he did go through some development in the novel which was interesting to observe (some parts are told in the third person following Achilles).

There's a tension you feel throughout the book that's generated by the fact the women don't speak up for themselves. Because they can't, if they want to survive they can't. Some choose to speak with action, like Briseis' cousin who throws herself off the wall of the city right before they are captured. Some resist by not resisting, like young Polyxena who holds her head high while she's taken away to be executed. Some pray wordlessly, hard and long for vengeance and get it, like Briseis. You see all these silent battles, but never a loud confrontation, because it's impossible. It's dreadful to realize they don't have a choice.

Pat Barker included all the themes Iliad works with and more. There's Achilles' grief for Patroclus, but there is the mothers' grief for their murdered babies, sisters' anguish over the loss of their brothers. There are musings about whether a person's memory lives on, but also how the memory of a community survives. The question is asked: can there be friendship between enemies? and so on...

If you're looking for long descriptions about the heat of the battles don't look here. The whole book is set in the background, at the camps. But there's plenty of pressure behind closed doors and consequences of the fighting always touch the women's lives. They are strong and enduring, they are women to look up to; Briseis, Arianna, Helen, Chryseis, Hecamede, Hecuba, Polyxena, and I could go on... these are names to remember.

I'm always looking for works that present Iliad from a new angle; Pat Barker's book is not one that I'll soon forget, I'm sure.