Review: The Silence of the Girls

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve never been super into Greek mythology. I’ve read what I had to for school but I’ve never done a deep dive. Earlier this year I read and really enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe and since then I’ve been thinking about what prevented me from enjoying Greek mythology before now.

silence of the girls

I just finished The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and I think I know the answer now: it always seemed like women were objects.

Obviously I was only partly wrong – Circe certainly wasn’t a Thing. But she was punished when her behaviour displeased a man. I liked The Silence of the Girls for the same reason I liked Circe – women became the central figures of their own story.

From Goodreads:

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.

I know there are likely many of you that are super familiar with the story so I wanted to make sure I got the gist of it correct. At some point, Agamemnon wants Briseis for himself and Achilles refuses to fight in protest and it gets bad all around. But the difference in The Silence of the Girls is that Briseis is telling her own story. Achilles and Agamemnon and all the rest of the men in these stories absolutely see women as objects as things to be desired and possessed.

But Briseis sees the men as they are too. She sees them as jealous and petty, as possessive and childish. And for me, that made it way more interesting than anything I’d ever read before.

Because of my ignorance in this area, I can’t say how closely the actual story was followed. The broad strokes that I remember are certainly there – Patroclus and Achilles are definitely in love with each other, Patroclus goes to fight as Achilles and dies, Achilles goes to avenge him and is killed at the only spot his armour wasn’t protecting – his heel.

But where The Iliad and all iterations are focused on the story of the battle and the desires of the kings involved, The Silence of the Girls focuses on Briseis and the women like her, how they are affected by the changing tides of war. Briseis, a Queen in her day, is clear eyed and understands all too well what it could mean for her should Achilles not return. She is now either a slave for the Greeks to use as they will, or a woman sullied by the Greeks should Troy be saved.

If authors keep writing stories like this, working over the threads of well-known tales to create ones told from different angles, I might find myself ever more invested in Greek mythology.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Silence of the Girls

  1. I just finished reading this and I can tell you that it closely follows what we know from the Iliad. I never was much of a fan of Greek myths, either, and this book adds a new, much needed, perspective. I was especially shocked about the killing of the young boys and pregnant women.

  2. I’ve been going back and forth on this as I also am light on my Greek mythology. I feel like this is a book I’ll see at the library in a year and try? I really do want to read Circe I think though.

  3. Like you I really loved Circe and The Silence of the Girls. Did you read Song of Achilles? If not you might want to. It was wonderful and makes you see Achilles and Patroclus from a completely different perspective. (I reviewed it and The Silence of the Girls together because they paired so well.)

  4. I think the only Greek lady who really stands out to me if Cassandra. She’s cursed to always speak the truth but no one believes it. She’s like this super early iteration of rape victims. Great to see a post from you! I hope to see you around more.

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