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Review: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

‘Heavy footed, Achilles…’ It was this line, late into Pat Barkers novel, that made me realise how much ingenuity had been poured into this subversive retelling of the Iliad. The Silence of the Girls follows one of the biggest foot-notes in greek mythology – Briseis, the “prize” over which Agamemnon and Achilles fall out. She’s a main feature of the Iliad – but just like Helen – she’s a plot device, a feature, never a person with a voice or autonomy. Pat Barker has given her that voice, and many of the other women characters too.

You can feel in this novel Briseis struggling to be the person she is, to be, to not be a ‘thing’ or a plot point in someone else’s story, all the while acknowledging that this story – this war – belongs to the men. Theres a moment towards the end of the novel where Briseis laments that it’s the captured Trojan women – who by the time the war ends will cease to be “Trojan” but will be considered to be either Greek property or Grecians themselves. Once they have children they become assimilated into Greece and given the autonomy of being ‘Greek’ affords. It is with the women that – once their object-hood ceases – Troy will live on in their songs, stories and tales. It’s by taking women of Troy as rewards, they allow the stories of the city to live on, to be sung by their children, to remember the names of the dead. It’s the supposed ‘silence of the girls’, the overlooking of the women’s voices, that allows the defeated to live on.

This is a brutal novel of women and of war. But it’s not simple.

It was early-ish in the book when the perspective switched to Achilles from Briseis that I found myself a bit like, “what?”, I was wondering why we were getting the male perspective suddenly. I found the prose in the book compelling, and nevermore-so than when we are with Achilles so I am glad that we get his perspective as Barker has taken the ‘swift-footed’ and brought his main description to his thoughts; every thought and every sentence snaps on briskly from one to another. It gives you a real snapshot into his head.

But I wondered why, why were we hearing from Achilles? What did that give to the story of these women? Did his presence not divert from the mission of the book – to give voice to those women?

But it was this one line that made it all drop into place, ‘heavy footed, Achilles…’ it was part of a longer sentence but it struck a few things home about Barkers brilliance.

The silence she unveils in this book isn’t just the women’s silence, but also the silenced processing of Achilles emotions. The story of the Iliad is a journey for him, it’s a song of life, love, revenge and death, and yet the Iliad presents to us always the hardest side – the side of male pride, male stubbornness and male violence. His issues are shown to us in The Silence of The Girls; we see the uncertainty he feels of his place in the world, the discomfort of his own body, his tangled relationships with the women in his life, the softness of his love for Patroclus, it’s the weight of all of these emotions – his ‘heavy-footed’ness – that isn’t present in the Iliad. The usually swift-footed, outwardly brilliant, half beast, half god, cocky, son of Peleus is depicted by the middle of the novel – yes as all of those things – but also as a man in the throws of grief. We find Achilles trying to barter with death, and struggling to deal with the imposed societal rules of masculinity and revenge that have plagued his decisions and lead to Patroclus death and ultimately, his own. Barker uses the Iliad and her research to fill in, not just the stories of the women, but to undo some of the toxic masculinity that pervades the Iliad. She depicts the women’s lives as brutal, shows the strategic games and tactics they use to attempt safety and normalcy, she shows the strengths of their endurance, their strength in dealing with life or taking their own, and she equally attempts to bring emotions back to Achilles.

But Barker never makes us fully like Achilles, she manages to humanise him but never venerate him. Her use of both Briseis and Achilles as vessels for the story give the whole image of the war and its brutality. There’s no love story here, its the only emotion that seems to have escaped the whole thing, aside from those touching moments in the grief of Achilles that it appears. Its a brutal book, that subtly sub-verses the ideas of silence, of raised voices, of masculinity and femininity, of wars waged at different levels, and of the different strengths of character you find throughout the story of the Trojan War – on both sides of gender.

I would highly recommend it. It’s great if you enjoyed Circe, here are some more subversive and interesting tales of Greece and Troy, but equally its in a completely different vein altogether. If you found Circe boring or that it lost its momentum half way through, this book goes the other way, weaving together a complex story whose impact doesn’t hit you till the end.

It’s a book that leaves you thinking about it hours afterwards.

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