The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls cover image

Victors and men can make history say what they want it to, and the truth of what women experience in the shadows can be very different from what is recorded for posterity.

Author: Pat Barker

Finished on: 1 December 2020

Where did I get this book: A kindle read

History may be written by the victors. But certainly, the vast majority of the time, history has been written by the men.

Pat Barker tackles this head on in The Silence of the Girls, her 2018 reimagining of The Iliad. She tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective not only of those whose cities are defeated by the Greek armies, but also of the women from these cities. While the Greeks slaughter all the men, many women are taken as captives and prizes, to be shared out among the Greek soldiers as the spoils of war.

Briseis is our central character for much of the narrative, starting the story as the Queen of Lyrnessus as it is under siege. She sees Achilles murder her brothers along with the rest of the men of the city, then is taken to be the prize of the very man who murdered her family.

I realise this all sounds horrific, and indeed it is for much of the book. But Barker is a writer who knows a thing or two about the both the horrors and the ambiguities of war. Her spectacularly successful Regeneration trilogy deals with the traumas of the First World War, and she brings the same clarity and deceptively simple writing to her depiction of the Greek army camp here.

Briseis and the other ‘prizes’ must live with their captors for years while the war plays out not very far away. And it’s not all horrible, as many of the relationships develop and shift over that time.

Barker’s writing has such precision, and a measured tone that is almost mesmerising to read. Perhaps subverting expectations of a woman’s perspective, this is a book that describes emotions with a real sense of objective detachment.

The Silence of the Girls is at its most interesting where Barker undermines and strays from Homer’s epic version of events. She understands that the victors and the men can make history say what they want it to, and that the truth of what women experience in the shadows can be very different from what is recorded for posterity.

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