The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Put simply, The Silence of the Girls is the story of the Iliad, retold from the perspective of Briseis. Myth retellings are notoriously tricky. You’ve got to honour the timeless nature of much beloved characters and stories, and yet offer a fresh perspective that makes the effort feel worthwhile, enhancing the impact or themes of the original in some way. It must please those who are passionate about the core myths, and yet be accessible for those who are entirely new to them. On all fronts, I thought Barker was very successful.
The handling of the characters was excellent, as she managed to add depth and nuance without contradicting the existing canon. They are each fleshed out in a suitably complex way, Barker showing us that times of conflict can bring out both the best and worst in a person. The brutality of war, the horror of enslavement, and the lack of agency granted to women are all captured with raw vigour.
Briseis herself was a fantastic heroine, and I felt instantly drawn to her narrative voice. The fact that she narrates almost the entire story to us in first person, and yet speaks outwardly only a handful of times throughout the novel, is a stroke of genius, tying in beautifully with the title. Women like Briseis may well have been silenced, but they were still living, breathing, thinking, and feeling; far more perceptive than most of the men around them realised. Barker captures this idea with real flair.
That brings me to my only real critique of the book, which is the third person chapters from Achilles’ point of view. I understand that the context gleaned from these sections was important, but the shift to third person felt jarring, and my investment in Briseis was so great by the first time it happened that I resented any interruption to her telling of this story. As with Circe (another myth retelling with a feminist edge that is on the Women’s Prize longlist), there are also a few particularly modern, colloquial phrases that felt clumsy given the setting and tone – though this is obviously a stylistic choice.
The prose in general is wonderful, however. It’s so readable, and yet is packed with beauty; a balance that must have been especially hard to achieve given both the scale and harshness of the world she was writing about. Indeed, Barker manages to capture the grand, epic moments we expect, and the quiet, introspective character moments we don’t with equal aplomb. The way she brought everything together was so skilful, in fact, the final scenes almost made me emotional.
You can pick up a copy of The Silence of the Girls from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!