‘The Silence of the Girls’ Is the Feminist Iliad We Needed All Along

Cover of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker on a grey background with an illustration of a green leaf wreath around it.

Listen to this book review via the Coffee Time Reviews Podcast.

I’ve never read the Iliad. Nor the Odyssey. Nor the Aeneid.

I know, major confession to make as a huge bookworm who spends more time than she probably has reading books, and thinking, talking, writing and editing content about books.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some meagre knowledge of what happens in these Greek poems but I’ve never actually read them back to back. Mythology has never interested me much unless it’s Egyptian. 

So I spent most of my life in near ignorance of Greek mythology. Until I discovered the modern retellings.

Mythology retellings have been sweeping the bookish world in recent years, and for good reason: to highlight the unsaid points of view and offer a more representative, more complete picture of the famous ancient texts and the events they depicted.

I started my retelling reading spree with The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller which, I admit not unproudly, destroyed me and tore my heart in a million pieces. 

Following from such a heart-breaking and at the same time heart-warming love story between two of Ancient Greece’s most famous leaders and fighters, I picked up Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. At first, I wanted to read it because I knew it was narrated mostly by Briseis, whose character I absolutely loved in Miller’s retelling.

Not only did this book deliver, in the sense that we see a lot of Briseis’s character, but it over-delivers, in coming to complete the story of the Trojan War from a female perspective.

Male vs Female Perspectives: A Comparison

In The Song of Achilles, we spend lots of time with Patroclus and Achilles, but, crucially, we get a very partial, one-sided view of both. Narrated in Patroclus’s voice, the book follows the two men’s story from the first time they meet as young boys until the gruesome days of the Trojan War and their role in it.

Whoever has some common European knowledge will have heard of Achilles and his insane fighting skills, accentuated by the legend that he was practically untouchable except for his heel.

So to see Achilles since childhood and through the eyes of someone who is first his closest friend, then his lover and closest comrade paints an entirely different picture that barely touches upon this man’s cruelty.

Because of course, to Patroclus, he wasn’t cruel.

Now, in The Song of Achilles, we do get glimpses of his, frankly annoying, thirst for glory and his distant attitude towards the gruesomeness of his actions in the war. But still, because of Patroclus’s voice, you can’t help but root a little for him, for them both.

Enter The Silence of the Girls. And if I was all hopeful and melty inside reading Achilles and Patroclus’s story, boy was I angry and frustrated when I saw it through Briseis’s eyes.

Throughout the book, although we follow mainly Briseis, we get important glimpses into the different directions women’s lives took during the Trojan War, especially as citizens of the losing side of the conflict.

We begin with Achilles’s monstrous conquest of Lyrnessus, where Briseis lived with her husband of royal descent. While all the men in the city are killed with harrowing cruelty by the Greek army and especially by Achilles, the women end up in much worse situations. 

Captured, assaulted, their children murdered in front of them, or brought to a point of ending their own life, we get to see what it meant to be a woman on the losing side of a war in ancient times.

As a daughter and wife of nobility, Briseis ends up enslaved and given to Achilles as his prize for taking the city. 

If you Google Briseis you find out about her key role in history: “Her role as a status symbol is at the heart of the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon that initiates the plot of Homer’s epic.”

When king Agamemnon is forced to give up his “prize” of war, a young girl he was obsessed with, in order to save his camp from a plague, he claims Achilles’s “prize” — Briseis — which renders Achilles to withdraw his troops and his involvement in the war, leading to one of the most well-known military crises in history.

Yet history makes it sound as if Briseis herself was the root of the dispute, not the pride and spitefulness of two powerful men who couldn’t get over losing their female slaves as if they were mere candies they took from each other.

We get to witness her life alongside countless other women, all in various stages of captivity, and her strength, resilience and pure rage at the horrors brought about simply by men’s pride.

Briseis’s story is, in a way, a smaller version of Helen’s — also blamed for being the cause of the Trojan War, although of course, it had always been about the male anger and ego, and their utter inability to take responsibility for their actions.

The title of the book starts to make sense towards the end of the story when a single Trojan saying summarises women’s fates: silence becomes a woman

“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.”
Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls

The story centres on what, if anything, women had to say in the conflict, and the various and ingenious ways in which they used their inability to have a say at all, clutching at straws to save some crumb of life or hope they had left.

And because of that, and because of many more important reasons, this is a book everyone should read.

Published by Eliza Lita

Founder and editor-in-chief: Coffee Time Reviews. Freelance writer and Higher Ed comms person.

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