The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

I’ve had a lovely run of Homeric stories retold from a feminist perspective this year – Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, and now Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls.

After Miller’s wonderful, rich storytelling, I was looking forward to seeing what Barker would come up. I was thrilled that her story was going to be told from Briseis’ point of view, as I enjoyed the brief glimpse that Miller gave me into a possible story for her in The Song of Achilles.

Briseis, the wife of the King of Lyrnessus, Mynes is one of the women and girls captured as spoils of the Trojan war. She is given to Achilles as a war trophy, but becomes a disputed object between Achilles and Agememnon which leads the reader into the central crisis in Homer’s The Iliad.

Barker doesn’t shy away from the sexual nature of these transactions. The women and girls knew they were going to be enslaved, raped and abused. Knowing this, I’m not sure why more of them didn’t leap from the top of the tower, like Barker described two young women doing early on, as the Greeks crashed through the front gate.

Maybe there wasn’t that much difference between their husbands and their new masters? Or perhaps the violence wasn’t as horrific as I imagined and Barker suggested? Maybe a form of love or tenderness bloomed between master and subject? Perhaps the Greeks were looking for the comforts of home not more violence?

We will never really know, which is why I’m so fascinated by these modern retellings.

However, in the end, Barker’s was a fairly straight version of events as originally told in The Iliad.

I enjoyed the first person narrative of Briseis, but found the occasional third person narrative from Achilles point of view very clunky. There only worth was to highlight just how objectified the women in the camp were to the men. They were sexual objects for barter and to show off. Barker showed these men as being unable to remember the names of the women that they took to their beds on a regular basis, dismissing their words, their presence and their humanity.

I also struggled with the language. Barker’s writing style abounded in cliches with her characters often behaving in implausible ways. The dialogue in particular was banal and didn’t seem to lead anywhere or show anything. I was disappointed to say the least.

So for now, this ends my run of Homeric retellings with a feminist twist. I still have Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad to look forward to one day and Gareth Hinds graphic novel adaptation of The Iliad on my TBR pile…maybe the next readathon?

Favourite Quote: I didn’t underline one single phrase or sentence.

Favourite or Forget: Forgettable.

Facts:

  • Costa Novel Award 2018 Shortlist
  • Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019 Shortlist
  • Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.

9/20 Books of Summer Winter
Sydney 19℃
Dublin 18℃

7 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

  1. I read Colleen Mccullough's Troy (forget its name) and it was one of the worst novels I ever read. In relation to your comments though, it's surprising what people put up with – comes down to expectations I think.

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  2. I am generally not keen on this classical retellings, and so far have shied away from this one (and Madeleine Miller) though I do like Barker's writing. I think the sexual violence element whether it is merely implied or not does put me off. It sounds like you weren't totally convinced.

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  3. I attempted McCullough's Roman series but bailed during the second book. Even though the topic/era was of high interest to me, I got bored and bogged down. Haven't tried anything else of hers since then – my expectations are low and I won't put up with tedious writing styles!

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  4. Miller's ones were done so well, I had high hopes for this one too Ali. But she failed to capture my imagination or my heart with this one. However, I do have her Regeneration trilogy on my TBR pile, so hopefully I fare better there.

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  5. These new retellings are new to me. Your review surely piqued my curiosity.Maybe their husbands were as bad as the new masters… made me laugh. If these are myths, they surely show the true nature of men-women, master-slave relationships at a different time, one more raw and less \”Christian\”. If we think about it, in cultures before Christ, strength and domination prevailed over unknown moral virtues such as compassion and respect for the weak (whoever the weak was.)

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  6. I trust your judgement and have gone from thinking I will add this to my wishlist to reading other reviews with a critical eye. However, I do have the Atwood retelling to look forward to, and at least that's had critical aclaim!

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