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Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.
Published 4th September 2018 by Penguin.
Read March 2020.

When the Greek Queen Helen is kidnapped by Trojans, the Greeks sail in pursuit, besieging the city of Troy.

Trapped in the Greek soldiers' camp is another captured queen, Briseis. Condemned to be bed-slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her family, she becomes a pawn in a menacing game between bored and frustrated warriors.

In the centuries after this most famous war, history will write her off, a footnote in a bloody story scripted by vengeful men - but Briseis has a very different tale to tell . . .


Everyone thinks they know a little bit about the legendary Trojan Wars - when the Greeks sailed to Troy to retrieve the beautiful Helen (she of the face that launched a thousand ships), after she ran off with the handsome young Paris, and where they stayed for nine long years before they cold breach the walls of the city.

Names of the famous heroes of the Trojan Wars, such as Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Agamemnon, Hector, Odysseus and the like, trip off the tongue with ease, and there have been some excellent retellings of the male side of this story in recent years - such as Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles. But we rarely hear much of the women who were involved. War was seen to be the business of men,after all.

The Silence of the Girls gives us a glimpse of a completely different side of the story - the story of the women caught up in the siege of Troy. The women who were taken as slaves after their menfolk fell in battle; the women who were treated as the rightful possessions of the victors.

Pat Barker gives voice to these women in the form of Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus, who was taken as a prize when her city fell and given to Achilles as his bed-slave - the man who butchered her husband and brothers. Unusually, a woman who we do know a little about, since she was the cause of discord between Achilles and Agamemnon.

Through Briseis we get to see what the life of a woman taken in war and forced to become the slave of her enemy is really like - not just from her own experiences, but also from those of the other women around her in the Greek camp.

Much of this story is heartbreaking and anger-inducing, but it also brings a whole new depth and roundness to The Iliad that is immensely enjoyable, and an understanding of how the memory of the fallen lives on through the women that survive.

The relationships between the characters became real in a way I have not experienced before and they seem to come alive under the pen of Pat Barker. This is outstanding writing and it is easy to see why this book has been included in many book prize selections, since it was published.

I have also had the privilege of listening to the wonderful audio book of The Silence of the Girls, which is narrated by Kristen Atherton as Briseis and Michael Fox as Achilles. This has to be one of my favourite audio listens so far, as it is simply mesmerising - I particularly liked the way that the narrators used regional accents for some of the other characters during their conversations, to emphasise the wide cultural make-up of the Greek camp.

I think you really need to know a little about the Trojan Wars to get the best out of this one, but there is still plenty here for those of you that only have a vague idea of what it was all about, because this is essentially a story of love, hate, jealousy, understanding, war, pride, violence, submission and silent rebellion.

This is the most human telling of the tale of Troy that I have ever read, because it can finally be seen from the sides of both the men and women who are part of the story.

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