Oct 28 2019

The Silence Of The Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence Of The Girls by Pat BarkerGosh, I still can’t get over how clunky that title is.

That said, I was disappointed with this novel. Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy is one of the all-time best examinations of the horrors of war, and her skill at writing about armed conflict and the toll it takes on the men who fight in it and the women who pick up the pieces at home is readily apparent here in this retelling of the Trojan War. Achilles is the glorious hero with mother issues; Patroclus is his sensitive best friend and sometime lover; Agamemnon is the prideful and selfish commander-in-chief, and Ajax has acute PTSD, even as he keeps fighting day by day. On the Trojan side, there are a lot of broken dads begging for the return of their children. And then I guess there are women.

Briseis is our main viewpoint character, tho we get A LOT of Achilles. And that’s the main problem here. Despite this book being ostensibly about Briseis and the overlooked Trojan women who are treated as mere belongings by their Greek captors, Achilles sucks the air out of every scene he’s in just by showing up. I get it, he’s an interesting, complex personality but if I wanted to read a book about Achilles, I’d go read one of the hundreds of titles already out there. Ms Barker’s penchant for war heroes overwhelms Briseis’ tale. She even admits as much towards the end, where Briseis says that her story can only begin now that Achilles is dead. Then why not start our story there?!

I greatly enjoyed reading about Briseis’ background and her experiences, as the one-time princess of Lyrnessus becomes a slave to Achilles and struggles to survive the final days of the Trojan War, claimed by Agamemnon (who was 100% wrong, btw. Clytemnestra was a fucking heroine) in a snit over who gets the best prizes. And yes, it’s nice to read a version of Greek legend which deals realistically with what happened to the average woman involved. But this never really felt like Briseis’ story, only like Achilles’ story told occasionally from her point of view. Which I wouldn’t be so disappointed by if The Silence Of The Girls hadn’t been described as more overtly feminist. I understand that Briseis was constrained by her situation such that agency was difficult to achieve, but to then juxtapose that with all the cool shit Achilles does is a huge disservice to the character.

I also honestly don’t feel like I learned anything new from TSotG about the time or place or events. Maybe if you’re not familiar with how awful the Ancient Greeks actually were, you should read this. Otherwise, I’d recommend Madeline Miller’s Circe (she also writes about Achilles! I haven’t gotten round to it because I don’t care about pretty, violent young men with mommy issues, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good) if you want feminist retellings of Greek legend, or Jo Walton’s The Just City for more on how the Ancient Greeks weren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or even Ms Barker’s afore-mentioned Regeneration trilogy for compelling, realistic depictions of war. TSotG, on the other hand, is probably something you can skip.

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