The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls
Pat Barker

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.


Alternate title: I Suddenly Remembered I Promised Book Reviews.

This was an interesting read. I’ve been on kind of a Greek mythology kick ever since I read Circe, so The Silence of the Girls made its way onto my reading list the minute goodreads suggested it.

The Silence of the Girls is a woman’s-eye view of the Trojan War, a first-person account narrated by Briseis, queen of Lyrnessus. Following the sack of Lyrnessus, Briseis is captured and given to Achilles as war booty. She lives in the Greek camp for about a year (I think?) before the sack of Troy, during which time she observes the people around her, forges new bonds with her fellow slaves, and tries to survive as best she can. Eventually, of course, she becomes a point of contention between Achilles and Agamemnon, and is used and abused by both men in their fight for dominance. Later in the book her narrative is interspersed with chapters narrated by Achilles, whose mental state can be described as fragile at best.

I’ve always loved Greek mythology, so I found Silence fascinating. Though it’s still a retelling of the Trojan War, it added a number of new things that I hadn’t read before: Briseis, who in other retellings is most definitely not a queen, is the wife of Mynes, son of the king of Lyrnessus; Patroclus has a girlfriend/war prize of his own, named Iphis; Hector’s body and face magically rejuvenate every night after his death, causing Achilles to drag him all over the camp in a furious attempt to obliterate him; Briseis tries to run away, but thinks better of it five minutes later; Achilles has mummy issues. (Okay, that one I kind of knew.)

One of the best things about the book is Briseis’s observant and often dry-humored narrative, which gives a face and a voice to some of the thousands of women who were enslaved and then forgotten during the course of the war. Unlike other authors, Barker doesn’t glorify the war or try to portray Achilles as heroic; though he is a nearly undefeatable demigod, he is also described as a thug, a butcher, an overgrown child who clings to Patroclus and Briseis because they remind him of his mother. She doesn’t force Briseis to fall in love with Achilles, or with any of the other Greeks. Though Briseis decides not to run away from Achilles later in the book, her decision is based on a very painful logic: even if she does succeed in running away and hiding in Troy, she knows that Troy will fall within weeks, and that she will suffer more than she already has when she is recaptured. And, though she ends up married to one of Achilles’s servants, this is also for a practical reason: Achilles, knowing that Briseis is pregnant with his child and that he only has days left, arranges the marriage and instructs her new husband to take her and her child to his (Achilles’s) father’s court. There is some sliiiiiiight Stockholm Syndrome towards the end, as Briseis grows somewhat more accepting of her life with Achilles, but, given that she had by that point been badly abused by Agamemnon, I can understand her softening a bit towards Achilles and wanting to make the best of things. I went into this book wanting sweeping heroics from her, but, in retrospect, I think that’s the point Barker is trying to make: that sweeping heroics are not always possible, and that sometimes, in terrible situations like the one Briseis is forced into, the best you can do is survive. This is never made clearer than it is in this powerful passage towards the end of the book:

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.

And yet, despite the horrors she has witnessed and even though escape would be pointless, Briseis still realizes that she and the other slave women have survived and will continue to survive.

There they were: battle-hardened fighters every one, listening to a slave sing a Trojan lullaby to her Greek baby. And suddenly I understood something – glimpsed, rather; I don’t think I understood it till much later. I thought: 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.

In the end, Silence isn’t particularly emotionally fulfilling. It is not a revenge epic. It is not a wish fulfillment fantasy. It is the story of a woman struggling to survive and eventually making a new life for herself after her world is destroyed. The book ends with these words:

Now, my own story can begin.

Of course, it wouldn’t really be a review if I didn’t complain at least a little bit…

Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m really not sold on the writing. The book wasn’t badly written. Some of it was lovely. Unfortunately, the slang and a lot of the dialogue in general was very………..British. I had no issue with the profanity; presumably every language has its own version of fuck and all variations thereof, so it makes perfect sense that the Greeks – particularly the Greek soldiers – would’ve been singing something like this:

Why was he born so beautiful?
Why was he born at all?
He’s no fucking use to anyone!
He’s no fucking use at all!
He may be a joy to his mother,
But he’s a pain in the arsehole to me!

Other quotes made less sense.

  1. “Look at the cheeky little sods,” he kept saying. “Look at them.”
  2. Bribe him, plead with him, kiss his sodding arse if you’ve got to, but for god’s sake, make the bugger fight!
  3. “Me mam sent the midwife downstairs in the end. ‘You go and get yourself a cup of wine,’ she says. ‘I’ll stop with her.’ And the minute the midwife was out the room, she whipped the covers off and I don’t know what she did, but oh my god, the relief. Ten minutes later he was born. ‘Oh,’ the midwife says, ‘I didn’t think she was as close as that.’ Me mam just smiled.”

I realize with that last one you’re supposed to understand that the character is speaking with a different accent, but that was a peculiar way of conveying the class of a Trojan woman. The book also frequently uses the word “bloody” (okay, I guess…….I suppose ancient Greek could’ve had a comparable word) and “for god’s sake.” The Greeks worshipped many gods. Barker clearly knows this. Everyone who’s ever picked up Greek mythology knows this. To which god are the characters referring when they say “For god’s sake”? Surely they’re not referring to the Christian god whose name most of us take in vain nowadays? Was it really that fucking hard to write “For gods’ sake” instead? THIS IS KILLING ME.

The writing, for me, was the greatest obstacle in reading the book. It didn’t go quite as far as “Reader, I married him,” but the modern slang, Briseis’s internal arguments, and other minor irritants sprinkled throughout the book all added up to a very jarring, aggravating style. I was in Troy – and then I wasn’t. I was in the Greek camp on the beach, and then Myron was talking about “cheeky little sods” and suddenly I was in a pub watching the Greek army get hammered and yell about soccer. The Britishisms constantly dropped me out of the narrative, which overall walks a blurry line between beautiful, acceptable, and irritating. Barker also tries to dictate the reader’s internal pronunciation with hyphenated words that shouldn’t actually be hyphenated, such as “We-ell,” “List-en,” and “Ye-es.” Even more aggravating than the British slang and hyphenated words is Briseis’s habit of speaking to an unseen person, who seems to be her own internal interrogative voice:

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

I just don’t know how you could do that.

Well, no, of course you don’t. You’ve never been a slave.

This is an extremely valid point and one that I’m glad Barker consistently made, but it’s wrapped up in such a self-righteous bit of dialogue that it didn’t have the same impact it would’ve had if she’d written it differently. Between the hand-wringing “I just don’t know how you could do that!” and the self-consciously morally superior “Well, no, of course you don’t,” I came out of this particular chapter annoyed, which is probably not how the exchange was intended. In case you missed it the first time around, Barker considerately copied it and pasted it into a later chapter:

You were trying to arrange your marriage [to Achilles]…How could you do that?…I don’t understand how you could do that.

Perhaps that’s because you’ve never been a slave.

Also, I don’t actually remember her trying to arrange a marriage to Achilles at any point after Patroclus’s death? Did I miss something, or did Barker delete the scene where Briseis tried her luck? Whatever the case, I feel like there are better ways of explaining Briseis’s decisions than forcing her to argue with the handful of clueless voices camped out in her head. The narrative as a whole leaned rather heavily on the “I Must Make It Sound As If The Character Is Speaking Directly To The Reader” device, which, rather than making it sound natural and conversational, wrecked the flow of the prose and made it more contrived. Here’s a few examples:

  1. He made love – huh! – as if he hoped the next fuck would kill me.
  2. We-ell, in a manner of speaking I’d survived.
  3. Oh, yes, I got that story too.

CliffsNotes

The story was interesting. The writing drove me crazy. I personally prefer The Song of Achilles, which didn’t use stupid words like “shlurping,” but The Silence of the Girls is still very much worth reading.

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