‘The Silence of The Girls’ by Pat Barker is an attempt by the author to retell Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ from a female, and possibly feminist perspective. The book was shortlisted for ‘Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019′ and currently has an average rating of 3.91 on Goodreads. The story is told from Briseis’ perspective, a woman who is forced to become a prize for Archilles and the first part of the story largely entails her experiences in a very male-driven, Greek camp.
“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”
The Book itself is an enjoyable read, and having never read ‘The Iliad’ before and not knowing that much of Greek mythology, as I missed out on the Percy Jackson craze when I was younger it was fairly easy to follow. I learnt a lot about the war in the book, and more about the women involved in it than I imagine I would from reading ‘The Iliad’, but I’ve also never read that so don’t take my word for it.
The book doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, or the horrors of being a slave, which effectively Briseis and all the other captive women in the camp are. The first part of the book details this quite vividly with descriptions of a rat and disease infested camp, and the fear that all the women feel at being at the mercy of the men. Barker also manages to capture the feeling of how a war changes you in ways you might not expect, as a former Queen in Briseis is forced to live in the same conditions as every other women in the camp, regardless of social standing before the war.
However, for a book called ‘The Silence of The Girls’, we spent a remarkably large amount of time following Archilles and the other men from Briseis perspective. The novel opens and is set up to be very much about the women as Briseis recounts how their city was overrun and how her and the other women and girls were captured and forced to what their men die. It begins as a story of female suffering in war, but it doesn’t seem to remain that way. As the novel progresses, the narrative very much focuses on the men and their struggles within the camp rather than the women’s.
Our female narrator is somehow reduced to a side character in what is meant to be her story.
Archilles becomes a menacing and over-bearing figure in Briseis’ narrative, and is perhaps the most complex character in the book whilst Briseis is reduced to the ‘cute but essentially helpless child’ (H.Bertens; Literary Theory: The Basics), a stereotype that female characters are often made to be to not only enhance the male character they are put beside, but also to continue the power imbalance between men and women in the real world. We can see Briseis is ‘helpless’ from her unsuccessful attempt to escape, but also from her mentality to refuse to fight back at all. She can’t even bring herself to hate Archilles for being her master whilst she is his slave, she is reduced to something meek and something entirely willing.
Perhaps this may have been Barker’s intention, to clearly illustrate just how much power Archilles held over Briseis and other women in the camp, by not only being Greek and a great warrior, but by being a man. However, in a book titled ‘The Silence of The Girls’ which in it’s very title promises to showcase what hid behind that silence it should be expected for Briseis to be more than a female stereotype we have read about over and over again.
Instead this book is very much about Archilles and his perspective of the war told through Briseis. Whilst this makes for an interesting book and conception, it is not what the reader was promised, and the book should have been titled something else entirely.
It is ironic, therefore, in a book titled ‘The silence of The Girls’, the girls and women remain silent.
It feels as if I’m being harsh on the book, it was an entertaining read and I did enjoy it, but not for the reasons I was expecting to. I have awarded it with 3 stars for this reason, as it’s not a story told from a female perspective as the concept promised but it’s a good and moving narrative, but none the less, make no mistake it is Archille’s narrative and not Briseis’.