The Silence of the Girls: Book Review

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

The Silence of the Girls could alternatively be titled Not Another Greek Mythology Novel. Seriously, that well seems to be running dry, yet writers continue to return hoping for a geyser of fresh story that just doesn’t exist.

This novel reimagines, or perhaps tangentially imagines the story of Achilles from the Iliad. Briseis, a captured Trojan Princess (Queen?) turned sex slave to her Greek captors, narrates her captivity, her life as Achilles personal concubine, and the end of the Trojan and Greek War.

Trigger warning: rape, abuse

The story focuses on the females of the tale, the Trojan women who were spared death but forced to adopt a life far less preferable.

I do think every story has its reader. I am not this story’s reader. The author shows the characters being repeatedly raped throughout the novel. While I understand the reality of this to the situation of tribal warfare, I feel like the book was written to showcase such atrocities to men. As a woman, I don’t need to be shown such a truth repeatedly. I know the world as it is.

I am not a big fan of rape used as plot device. I rarely enjoy such narratives and find them to be too disturbing to continue when the character is subjected to the event repeatedly. Some cases this may be necessary but I did not think the repetitive imagery necessary to this story.

The author is very aware of her characters’ submission to males that made such actions forgivable to the Greeks, but also leaves open the male perpetrators to redemption in the eyes of the reader. There is honor in the system they have employed, killing Trojan men and young boys, pregnant Trojan women who may birth more Trojan men. Abducting the other women and girls and forcing them into slavery. The author seems to waffle between showing the atrocities of this tribal system and praising the men who upheld it because it was, after all, all they knew.

Clearly exhibiting Stockholm Syndrome, the Trojan women adjust to their new lives, accept the rapes largely as acceptable copulation, get pregnant, and turn to worshipping their captors while their home is continually at war with the self-same captors.

I had hoped Briseis would be the exception to this collective forgiveness.

Achilles, painted monster in the beginning resumes his godhood quickly and with little irony.

The lyrical writing saved this book. The writing is beautiful and if one could ignore the content and bigger picture and just listen to the flow of the words, they would greatly enjoy this book.

There were some insights about the burden of women in wartime, those who are left behind and survive, however horrific the survival. But the insights feel disconnected and don’t seem to fully support the theme of the book. I felt a little dizzy jumping from disdain for the Greeks to reverence.

I have read several books that won the Booker Prize for Fiction and agreed with the award. This book confuses me as to its merit. It’s okay, but not life changing and frankly a little troublesome in how the author portrays her female characters growth (regression, more like).

3/5 Stars