In the months October-December, I’m setting myself a challenge to get through as many of the recent swathe of Greek myth retellings as I can, and review them all here. The first book I read was Circe by Madeline Miller, reviewed here. Now on to part two!
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
After reading Circe, I think I naively expected the second retelling I opened to conjure up similar sorts of feelings, and basically went into it expecting a repeat of my Circe reading experience. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Though published in the same year (2018), The Silence of the Girls is a very different beast.
What makes it so different? Well, for starters, its main character is a mortal: Briseis, the prize of war given to Achilles and subsequently fought over between him and Agamemnon, and as such the tinder which eventually sparks… a lot of fighting and death.
While Circe had its dark moments, it overall felt like a light read to me. The Silence of the Girls is the opposite. From its early pages, when we see through Briseis’ eyes the sacking of her city, the brutal murders of all the men and boys, and the sexual enslavement of the women and girls (herself included), it’s clear this is a book that won’t hold back in its gnarly depiction of the ugliness of war.
The sheer amount violence at the beginning is such that it did give me doubts – not around the book’s worth, but around whether I was in the right frame of mind for it. As I proceeded, these doubts were stoked by the fact that Briseis is necessarily a passive protagonist; she is enslaved, terrified, and can do very little more than exactly what she is told. Her narrative is very ‘fly on the wall’.
But soon I realised how essential both these elements are to the book’s central theme – which is so succinctly encapsulated in its title: the silence of girls and women in the original narrative. I thought I knew this story, but when reimagined from the perspective of the women who are enslaved in the camp, forced to obey those who killed their relatives, raped by them and made to bear their children, it feels very different. Different, and powerful.
What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.
There’s something very bold and almost relentless about how this book addresses its theme. Up close we see powerlessness, crimes inflicted on the body, humiliation, the terrible truths of slavery. Although the gods are present, the world of this book feels very down to earth, heavy in realism. As in the quote above, it really challenges us. We find it so easy to think of the ancient story in terms of themes like honour, glory, destiny, or love. But the lists of the dead are there in the original, as is the treatment of women as objects. This book is unfailingly honest about all of that.
So yes – it’s much darker than I expected, but I don’t want to put anyone off picking it up. I found it in the end such an important and gripping read. Crucially, as well as its honesty about the darkness of its subject matter, it also retains nuance. It explores the strangeness of the lives of these women in the camp and beds of their enemies – how for many this had to become their new life, how when they bore children to their captors, they loved them, and how, in the sidelines and the women’s work, they sought to defend a small, soft power for themselves. The moment when Briseis finally takes some action for herself (towards the end when King Priam enters the camp) is so powerful because it is the first time she’s done it, and the eventual choices she makes are complex and interesting.
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.
I would highly recommend this book. For me it brought the myth into a finely imagined version of reality, and powerfully explored its central theme.