The Silence of the Girls, A Novel – Pat Barker Book Review

I’d be lying if I said I finished this book straight after I’d picked it up for reading. Close to one month later and some depressing paragraphs in, I can say this book serves its demoralising purpose: To show us how women were treated during and after the Trojan war.

… men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They ’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles—or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?

What started like a possible feminist approach of a survivor’s tale, quickly degraded into a peek into despair as the once mighty queen was captured and given as a sex slave to Achilles.

I was useful, I suppose; I served a particular purpose. Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men. In Achilles’s compound, the message had been: Look at her. My prize awarded by the army, proof that I am what I’ve always claimed to be: the greatest of the Greeks. Here, in Agamemnon’s compound, it was: Look at her, Achilles’s prize. I took her away from him just as I can take your prize away from you. I can take everything you have.

The Story

Here is the story of the Iliad as we’ve never heard it before: in the words of Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. Given only a few words in Homer’s epic and largely erased by history, she is nonetheless a pivotal figure in the Trojan War. In these pages she comes fully to life: wry, watchful, forging connections among her fellow female prisoners even as she is caught between Greece’s two most powerful warriors. Her story pulls back the veil on the thousands of women who lived behind the scenes of the Greek army camp–concubines, nurses, prostitutes, the women who lay out the dead–as gods and mortals spar, and as a legendary war hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion. Brilliantly written, filled with moments of terror and beauty, The Silence of the Girls gives voice to an extraordinary woman–and makes an ancient story new again.

My Take on it

White sun. Black shadows, knife-edged. Silence.

This is a great first-person perspective on one of the wars which has made history interesting. It’s capturing the voices of the women in everyday life and their thoughts and feelings. I couldn’t help but wonder how all of their voices were like, not just Briseis’. She’s in a somewhat golden cage as the prize of the best fighter the Greeks had and her privileged position gave her a place to sleep and food at regular intervals. How were the other women doing? The slave girls? The ugly ones that no-one wanted? What were their voices like? Or is it that once the veneer of blue blood falls down, all you have left is ordinary women?

That skinny old woman with brown-spotted hands shuffling to answer her master’s door, can that really be Queen Hecuba, who, as a young and beautiful girl, newly married, had led the dancing in King Priam’s hall? Or that girl in the torn and shabby dress, hurrying to fetch water from the well, can that be one of Priam’s daughters? Or the ageing concubine, face paint flaking over the wrinkles in her skin, can that really be Andromache, who once, as Hector’s wife, stood proudly on the battlements of Troy with her baby son in her arms?

It’s an army camp, there are horrors of battle and the depressing cloud of despair hungs in the air and stifles any sort of message the book is trying to send about a feminist viewpoint. War refugees, displaced people, and most of all, slavery for the conquerors who were also to blame for the killing of their immediate families and the burning and ransacking of their home towns. When king Priam comes to beg for his son Hector to be returned to him for a proper burial, he tells Achilles he has lost all pride and is there only as a father requesting his son and not as a king.

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son.

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on all sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless women before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.

Briseis’ life is no easier. She is to sleep with a man she feels no desire for and be passed around in power games to Agamemnon who knows no mercy and only spits in her mouth after brutally sodomizing her.

Wouldn’t it be better, easier, to accept the joyless grind your life has become?

And when king Priam leaves the camp with the body of his son in a carriage, Briseis slips near the dead body and wants to escape back to freedom. What she does next is the attitude of a victim and not that one of a survivor. Fearing that her happiness outside the Greek Camps will be short lived and that when Achilles finds her he will torment her and then pass her on to his soldiers, she just slips out before Priam exits the camp and returns to Achilles. I was in awe. This woman was not looking to escape, was not looking to fight back or at least perform some act of revenge. She did what most weak women do and accepted her fate to be abused and raped at will and bed a man she did not love, just so that she can have some comfort.

When she finds out she is pregnant, Achilles shows some honour and asks one of his lieutenants to marry her in the event of his death to ensure that she will not live as a slave and that the child will be taken care of. Why he doesn’t marry her himself, we don’t know… She forfeits her chance at freedom to be just one of the many faceless women that took the hands that were dealt to them and refused to budge.

Me—myself again, a person with family, friends, a role in life. A woman, not a thing. Wasn’t that a prize worth risking everything for, however short a time I might have to enjoy it?…

‘ Silence becomes a woman.’ ” Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying.

 

All in all, I can’t say the book was bad. It was pretty well written with loads of metaphors but the dark tone never left it and I’ll be happy not having to read this book ever again.

PS: Historical discrepancies in the book:

  • Achilles eats apricots for breakfast. Apricots were brought to Greece, it is said by Alexander the Great returning from Central Asia, therefore at least 6/700 years after the Trojan War.
  • Patroclus, before dying in battle, applies a tourniquet to Eurilochus wounded in the lower limb: but the blood circulation was discovered by Harvey in the 17th century and the tourniquet by Petit, a French anatomist-surgeon, that of the lumbar triangle studies in surgical anatomy, in 1750

2/5

PS2: Better read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood Book Review

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