The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.

Author: Pat Barker

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Rating: 5/5

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.” 

Full disclosure: Books like this were made for me. I love feminist fiction, and I really love retellings — especially Greek mythology. Madeline Miller is my jam. This book is also my jam. I loved every page.

The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of parts of the Illiad, the Trojan War, from the point of view of Briseis. She was Queen of Lyrnessus before Achilles et al sacked the city. Then she was given to Achilles to be his bed slave as a war prize. She also develops a friendship with Patroclus and many of the other women who were slaves.

“Yes, I watched him. Every waking minute — and there weren’t many minutes I allowed myself to sleep in his presence. It’s strange, but just then, when I said ‘I watched him’ I very nearly added ‘like a hawk,’ because that’s what people say, isn’t it? That’s how you describe an intent, unblinking stare. But it was nothing like that. Achilles was the hawk. I was his slave to do what he liked with; I was completely in his power. If he’d woken up one morning and decided to beat me to death, nobody would have intervened. Oh, I watched him all right, I watched him like a mouse.”

Part I of the book takes us through the events from the sacking of Lyrnessus until Agamemnon decides that he wants to take Briseis from Achilles. (The last sentence of Part I gave me literal chills.) Then Part II takes us from that point until Achilles’ death, with special attention paid to the time after Patroclus died.

Throughout, the prose whacks you in the stomach again and again, giving voice and character and depth to the women of the Illiad. The women who either chose death before their cities were sacked or suffered afterward. Those women were there, in the story, but how often do we allow ourselves to pause and think about what they suffered?

Briseis’ narration is really powerful. She holds no punches; her description is told with the same cold and detached feeling that she experiences daily. It’s chilling.

This was also a really interesting look at Achilles. He’s cold and distant and ruthless but also somewhat childish and also hungry for warmth and affection. It makes you not quite like him, but also not quite dislike him either.

All in all, this book was gripping and begs to be pondered. Read it.

“We’re going to survive — our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.” 

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