The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Pat Barker is famous for her brutal depictions of the realities of war, n essence making her books anti-war narratives. In the past, she has written about the First World War (the Regneneration trilogy), but on this occasion she turns her hand to the Trojan War, that ten year stand-off between the allied Greeks and the probably Asia Minor city of Troy (and its allies). It is essentially a retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of the women. So that we no longer only hear the deafening silence of the female perspective.

I beg your pardon, the title is ‘girls’, not women, and this is probably deliberate. Many of the protagonists are very young, but all of them, even the older ones, the noble ones, the wives of great rulers, are little more than objects to be used, cast aside, bartered over, plundered – a bone that dogs fight over. ‘Girl’ is used pejoratively by their captors, it diminishes them.

The events Barker recounts stick pretty close to the Iliad and traditional Greek mythology. The main protagonist is a lesser-known secondary character, however, which means that we have little knowledge or preconceptions about her and her role in the war. She is Briseis, wife of Mynes, king of one of the lesser Trojan city states, Lyrnessus. Her husband and brothers are slaughtered and she is given to Achilles as a prize after he conquers her city. The author has some leeway with where she takes her character, because by and large her fate is unknown.
She disappears from the story after the arrival of Achilles’ son to fight in the final days of Troy, which is precisely when the author tells us that her ‘own story’ finally starts.

At first I thought: ‘What a novel concept! How refreshing to hear about the futility and tragedies of war from women, and to have these heroes like Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon discussed with refreshing candour of a woman forced to have sex with them. Very much like prostitues might discuss their clients’ foibles with disdain.’ These women are victims, but they take revenge too on these powerful men, albeit with the weapons of the weak, i.e. gossip.

But as I read on, two things struck me. First of all, the concept is not all that novel. It has all been done before, above all in the tragedy by Euripides Trojan Women – the final chapters about the fall of Troy and the fates of Andromache and Polyxena directly reference that work.

Secondly, I became somewhat annoyed by the Stockholm syndrome that Briseis seems to display towards her captor. While I appreciate that the author is trying to convey the complexity and charisma of Achilles as a character, show that he was not all bad (although stupidly stubborn and brutal), Briseis’ ambiguous feelings towards him did jar. (It worked better in her relationship with the more gentle and empathetic Patroclus, Achilles’ best friend and possibly his lover.)

Typical representation of Achilles, here in a painting by Franz von Matsch.

Where this book does excel is in the sharp-tongued, zingy cutting down to size of abstract concepts such as heroism and glory, friendship and love. So perhaps it felt wrong to me that Achilles is still too heroic and larger than life in this story. The change of voice from first person Briseis’ account to something approaching the omniscient third person didn’t quite sound right to me either.

But here are some of the quotes which did strike me:

Nothing happened. Well, of course nothing happened. Isn’t nothing what generally happens when you pray to the gods? (and yet plague like symptoms decimate the Greek camp very soon)

Yes the death of young men in battle is a tragedy. I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave (and see her child slaughtered), and I thought: We need a new song.

Finally, let me end with this quote about Agamemnon, who duly sacrifices Polyxena (Priam’s daughter) to ensure a safe journey home for the Greeks.

Though on second thoughts I doubt if Polyxena’s death affected him much. This was a man who’d sacrificed his own daughter to get a fair wind for Troy. I looked at him as he turned and walked away and I saw a man who’d learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, a coward without dignity or honour or respect.

Collective Artistes performing Trojan Women, directed by
Femi Osofisan

This reminds me of the puzzled hatred I’ve felt since I was a child for Agamemnon, Oedipus, Jason and so many other so-called Ancient Greek heroes, and the poor women who have to suffer their crassness, obstinacy and stupidity but end up getting the bad rap. Surprisingly, there is a lot of reading between the lines that you can do with all these ancient tragedies, which makes me think the Greeks were very subtle and good at psychology, or else that women were involved in the writing too somehow. Anyway, here is an earlier poem I wrote about that.

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17 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker”

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure this is for me. particularly as I’ve never actually read The Illiad. My only other experience of Barker (Toby’s Room) was not a positive one, so maybe I need to give her another try at some point. How did you get on with the Regeneration trilogy? Did you prefer it to this?

    1. I haven’t read the whole trilogy, I have to admit. I read the first one, but I’m not a big fan of war stories. I read this mainly because of the ‘women’s side of the story’ angle and because I like my Ancient Greeks. It is quite gruesome in parts but I think it largely works.

  2. I’m a bit conflicted about this. I like the idea of the women telling their side of things but I really don’t know if I could handle the violence. I obviously don’t know that I’d do very well with the original classics either…

    1. Let me put it this way: it’s not gratuitous violence, and not as graphic as in some contemporary crime novels. And yes, the original classics can be pretty grim reading…

  3. It’s a really interesting way to go about telling of history, Marina Sofia. I can see how this new perspective would be appealing, especially since we don’t really learn much about the women involved from the actual Iliad. I can see how that different view of the events could be engaging. Not sure I’m keen on the brutal violence, but it was part of the era.

    1. It was far less graphic than some crime fiction that gets published nowadays! The brutality lies more in the aftermath, in what happens between the lines, in the matter of fact way in which they decide to slaughter or sacrifice people, or pass them from one to the other like objects.

  4. As others have suggested, the violence was pretty nasty – I found it almost unbearable to read at times. I share your qualms about the depiction of Briseis; hadn’t thought of it as Stockholm Syndrome, but you have a point. It’s a powerful act of imagination, but doesn’t quite work, for me, as a sustained narrative

    1. Yes, not quite as satisfying as I was hoping for, but a good attempt. She does have a tendency to shout, underline, emphasize etc. rather than be subtle about things, but maybe that fits quite well with this particular story.

  5. Great poem. I loved the writing in Silence of the Girls but I take your point about Achilles. I lent it to a friend who was incensed by how dominant a character Achilles still was. It made me think that maybe I was too pathetically grateful for any female perspective within that classical story.

  6. I love Pat Barker’s writing but I generally don’t like these classical retellings. I certainly don’t like the idea of the violence. Margaret Atwood did a retelling from a female perspective in The Penelopiad which I liked but wasn’t wowed by.

  7. Like Caroline, the Regeneration trilogy is a firm favourite for me, but I’m not sure about this. It doesn’t sound like there’s enough here that’s different. I know she can’t deviate from the known plot but its a shame the men are still so dominant in the narrative.

  8. I enjoyed this book, but I was slightly disappointed that so much of it was from Achilles’ perspective. The title had made me expect that more of the female characters would be given a voice. This is the only Pat Barker book I’ve read so far, but I’m sure I’ll be reading more of them.

  9. Achilles does tend to dominate – I thought it was cheating a little when his character takes over the narrative. I did think Breisis’ attitude was entirely credible, though, given the position she is in. It was interesting that, in many ways, she had more freedom in the camp than when she was married, suggesting women’s lives were rarely easy.

    1. Yes, that freedom of wandering around the camp (which not all of the other women enjoyed) was interesting. And I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who felt that there was no need for Achilles to take over!

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