review: the silence of the girls | the Iliad, by Briseis

the silence of the girlsTitle: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Published in 2018 by Hamish Hamilton
Genre: retelling
Rating: ★★★★ – really liked it

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army. Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. 

my thoughts on - review black (1)

The Silence of the Girls is one of those novels I added to my to-read list immediately after hearing the synopsis. I didn’t care about reviews, awards, or anything along those lines. I would pick it up, even if I’d heard nothing but terrible reviews. Which I didn’t, so don’t worry. Why, you ask? This novel is a retelling of the Iliad through the eyes of Briseis. It’s the story of the Trojan War, told by the women affected by it. The ones who never really got a voice, and were practically erased by history. Doesn’t that sound fantastic?

A little while ago, I put in an acquisition request for The Silence of the Girls at my local library. I’m happy to say it was approved, and pretty soon afterwards, I was notified that the copy had arrived and I could pick it up. I got it, read it in only a few sittings, and returned it because someone else had already reserved it after me.

I’m not sure how to accurately convey my feelings on this book… On the one hand, I really loved it. I think it gave us a chance to read about the not-so-glamorous side of war, and it confronted us all with the slavery and rape that was so common for the women of a “conquered” city. On the other hand, the second part of the book introduced a new POV that I just didn’t understand. I really don’t know why it was placed in this book.

The Silence of the Girls is a really confrontational read. While the story of the Trojan War, and any war for that matter, is told so often, we never seem to talk about the fate of the women in the conquered states. The men end up dead as they form too much of a threat. But the women? Why kill them when you could use them? They’re given to the soldiers as a prize, used as slaves, prostitutes, nurses, and so on.

Briseis is given to Achilles as a prize, and we follow her story from the moment the highborn women are gathered in the palace as their city is being attacked. I don’t really know what to say about her journey and what happens to her, because I think that either you already know, or you want to go into this book not knowing.

Her perspective is incredibly fascinating. She hates the Greeks because they sacked her city and killed her family. But she spends so much time with Achilles and Patroclus, that she starts seeing them as humans instead of monsters too. She hates them, but she’s also aware of the fact that her fate is nowhere near as bad as that of the other women – which doesn’t make her suffering any less, by the way.

While she becomes friends with some of the women, there’s also a friendship between her and Patroclus. He has always treated her with kindness – and not just her. He’s Achilles’ counterpart, the one who keeps his feet on the ground. But how can you truly be friends with the people who murdered the ones you loved?

What I think this author achieved incredibly well is pointing out all the little details that showed how little women’s lives truly mattered. There’s a certain scene where Achilles is talking about giving Briseis to some another warlord to appease him. Everyone knows that guy treats the women under his “care” horribly, and she is standing close to Achilles when he announces it. He doesn’t seem to realize that she’s a human being, capable of understanding the circumstances he’s putting her in, nor does he care. She’s a possession after all. These little things, the offhand way in which he talked about her, make it clear how irrelevant the women’s lives truly were to the men.

However, I couldn’t really bring myself to give this novel a full 5 stars either. No matter how brilliant and confrontational it was, I think there were 2 missed opportunities.

I’m kind of sad that Briseis was the only woman who truly had a voice. From the synopsis, I assumed it would be told from a multitude of women in the Greek camp, all in different situations. Briseis would have been the main POV, yet I was expecting there to be others too. While Briseis’ view does give us an insight into the life of a “captured” woman in a war camp, she was still a highborn woman and lived a life with more “luxuries” than others. I think there could have been so many more experiences told in this novel, and I’m sad I didn’t get to see any of them.

I also didn’t understand why Achilles was given a perspective in the second half of the book. If the whole point of the novel was to give a voice to the silenced women, why put the man at the center of the story again? When his perspective was added, Briseis’ was pushed to the back once again. It made part of the book feel somewhat pointless to me, since she ended up being silenced once again.

I do think this is an absolutely fascinating read. I would highly recommend it to everyone, but be aware it doesn’t shy away from describing the women’s circumstances. It’s important to talk about the lives we so often gloss over when talking about history and famous tales, and The Silence of the Girls gives some of these people a voice once more. Although I do think there were some missed opportunities in this book, I think it’s a novel worth reading for sure.

Have you read The Silence of the Girls? What did you think of it? 

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25, reader, blogger, feminist, INFJ

5 thoughts on “review: the silence of the girls | the Iliad, by Briseis”

  1. I always love The Trojan War, I think it’s one of the most fascinating story- from the reason the war began to how it ended, and the legends that born with it. When I first heard about this book I immediately add it to my TBR too, but I haven’t got a chance to read it yet. I’m so happy that you enjoyed it and to see that it does give voices towards the untold stories of war, as imperfect as it is. I can’t wait to read this and thanks for sharing!


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