Published by Hamish Hamilton August 2018 / 336 pages
Opening sentence: “Great Achilles.”
The Silence of the Girls is a version of Homer’s Iliad but – here’s the twist – it’s mainly told from the point of view of one of the women, Briseis, who shines a light on the awful way women were treated in war: ‘They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles – or they prefer not to.’
Briseis’ husband was Mynes, King of Leleges but when her city was destroyed by the Greeks, the soldiers took her (and all the women) as a slave and she was awarded as a prize to legendary Greek fighter, Achilles. She went from being a queen to a sex slave that was simply something to be bargained with. SomeTHING, not someONE. Women really were just objects to be used. So, when I read that this book was a tale of the Trojan war as told by women, giving voices to women that had none and letting them tell their side of the story, it not only felt very topical for right now, but as a concept had the potential to be really interesting. However, I couldn’t help but feel that this idea wasn’t executed in any spectacular way. Ultimately, women during the Trojan war were seen as nothing but slaves and treated like shit. Hearing this from a female character doesn’t change anything about that. Briseis sometimes tries to justify why women fall in love with their captors, or are so complacent to the men that killed their families, to give a human angle to the terrible situation: ‘I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.’
So really what I’m reading is another version of the Iliad, a story I already know. Especially as despite being pitched as ‘the Trojan War from the point of view of the women’, Achilles has quite a few chapters from his point of view. To be honest, I did find myself skimming the Achilles chapters, they were not telling me anything different about his story, neither were they adding to his character.
The thing is, I read this quite soon after finishing Circe by Madeline Millar (also set in Ancient Greece.) This was a good and a bad thing. Good as I got to stay in the world of Greek mythology with all its drama, excitement and vengeance, but bad as I adored Circe – the strong female character that did give a voice to a woman (well, OK, goddess) from Ancient greek times, the way it was written, the human element entwined through it that made me care. The Silence of the Girls sadly did not have anywhere near such an impact on me. It is well written – the terrible conditions of life in a war camp are graphically brought to life and I liked how Pat Barker attributes a lot of contemporary language to the characters – it gave a fresher feel to the retelling.
Overall though, this has been the first book in a while that came with glowing reviews but just didn’t live up to the hype for me. Oh well, you can’t love them all!
Have you read The Silence of the Girls? What did you think?