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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
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The Silence of the Girls (original 2018; edition 2019)

by Pat Barker (Author)

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5093430,270 (4.03)118
Member:LuxVestra
Title:The Silence of the Girls
Authors:Pat Barker (Author)
Info:Penguin (2019), 336 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:Fiction, Read 2019

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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018)

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My mixed and less than enthusiastic reaction to The Song of Achilles (which is more the song of Patroclus, truly) encouraged me to look for another book and take on the Trojan War, and there are many. I saw there was a new release that deals with Briseis, who caught my eye in Madeline Miller's book and was probably my favorite character. I liked this novel better than "The Song of Achilles". This book has a much narrower scope and I thought it was an excellent companion book and I also think if one were to read one or the other I would recommend this over Song of Achilles. This is a retelling of The Illiad without all the men's glory and with all of the ugly grit, and mostly from the perspective of women, Briseis in particular.

A review was just posted on May 31 that praises this novel and says it much better than I could. ( )
  RBeffa | Jun 2, 2019 |
At the centre of the arena he stopped and raised both hands above his head until the shouting died away.
"Cheers, lads," he said. "She'll do."
And everyone, every single man in that vast arena, laughed.

---
Oh wow.

It’s a tale nearly as old as time, and one retold a dozen different ways across a dozen centuries. Troy, the great, lost city, against the might and power of the Greek army. At the Greeks’ head is Achilles, the greatest warrior of his time. But behind him, in his shadow, is Briseis, a former princess and queen now struggling to survive in a world defined by its cruelty and indifference that has offered her no good choices and often no choice at all.

I’ve read The Iliad and I’ve read Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, but never have I read this story quite this way before. The Silence of the Girls is steeped in the horrors of war, so everyday and commonplace and yet appalling beyond words. For Briseis and her fellow women, surviving each day is the only victory allowed to them.

This is not The Iliad, which sings glories to the bloody violence of the battlefield. This is not The Song of Achilles, where Patroclus and Achilles romp through a YA-approved romance while the Trojan War takes a sideline. This is a book about women watching from the roof of their safehouse as their city falls, as the invading army kills their fathers and husbands and brothers and sons, as the safehouse ceases to become safe and merely becomes a house in which terrible things happen. This is a book about women waiting for their lives to be decided and trying to live with their lack of choices. This is a book about women living in a world that was not built with them in mind.

This is a book about the side of war The Iliad did not deign to show because The Iliad is about glory and there is nothing glorious in The Silence of the Girls.

It would be more than a little easy for The Silence of the Girls to end up boring. Briseis’ situation remains largely constant and unchanged in its misery. Certainly it’s frustrating to read a perspective entirely without agency or choice. In many ways, Briseis’ story should be unwritable and unreadable. It’s to Barker’s massive credit that she’s transformed this story into something magnificent and tragic that lives beyond the bounds set by The Iliad.

There’s a whole niche genre of books that retell well-known tales and myths from the women’s perspective, such as The Penelopiad (excellent) and Mists of Avalon (a valiant but failed effort). The Silence of the Girls joins their ranks and immediately leaps to the head of the pack. Barker has brought a unique creation to life. The Silence of the Girls isn’t an easy read (quite the opposite), but it’s an illuminating and, in my opinion, an essential one. ( )
1 vote miri12 | May 31, 2019 |
I liked how it drove home the point that these enslaved women were objects, things to be given and used as if they were not people. And as Briseis herself says, it is Achilles's tale.

As a story that was recommended to me as showing the usually overlooked point of view of the women of these heroic tales...well, it was good. But I think having read Circe a few months ago spoiled its impact for me. ( )
  emanate28 | May 26, 2019 |
This review can also be found on my blog.

I had quite high hopes for The Silence of the Girls, which unfortunately just weren’t met. The best way to describe my reading experience is resounding apathy. Feeling apathetic whilst reading about a woman taken into slavery during war seems wrong, but here we are. I’d attribute this to a few things: the fact that I hadn’t read The Iliad before, the standoffish way I felt the story was narrated, and the fact that the POVs were not limited to Briseis, or even only to women.

I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.

I mentioned my lukewarm reading experience to Rachel, who noted that she wasn’t sure how much this book would hold for someone who wasn’t very familiar with The Iliad. While I knew bits and pieces of the story, my knowledge was really limited to its portrayal in The Song of Achilles as well as whatever I had picked up through osmosis throughout my life. As such, this was less of a retelling for me and more, well, a telling. On its own, I’m not sure the story stands as well as it would if I had more of a background with its greater context.

Briseis herself is quite terse throughout her narration. While she slips into emotional points, I found myself feeling untouched for most of the book. I’m certain others may disagree with me here, and I definitely think that this is quite a subjective opinion on my part. And I understand how this can be demonstrative of what she’s gone through -- trauma can make or break us, and it’s clear that the Trojan women must put up walls in order to make it through the war without breaking entirely. I just wish I could’ve seen this in a way that didn’t make me feel distant from her as well.

So we spent the nights curled up like spiders at the centre of our webs. Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies.

Lastly, I was really drawn to this story as giving a voice to women traditionally silenced. So much of the focus of history is on the heroism of men and very little is on the women who they have been supported by, or who they trod on. And yet more than once the point of view is handed to Achilles, the very man who is actively oppressing Briseis. Whatever reason this may have been for, I didn’t feel that it enhanced the story for me. Quite the opposite, the first time it happened I felt jerked out of whatever immersion I was experiencing and had to reread a bit to ensure it was really happening. Each time thereafter it felt out of place and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like had the book kept its focus on Briseis, or at least stuck to the perspectives of the women.

Now he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains.

Criticisms aside, I can see why others enjoyed this. I can certainly see why it was included on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I wish that my experience with it had been better, but alas. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I do recommend trying it out if it seems to interest you. Particularly if you have more of a history with Greek mythology than I do! Hopefully my next pick off the Women’s Prize list treats me a bit better. ( )
  samesfoley | May 23, 2019 |
As a boy I loved old legends, especially those of the Ancient Greeks, in which humans so often seemed like chess pieces moved around at the whim of the gods. One Christmas, now probably not far short of fifty years ago, my sister gave me a boxed set of Puffin paperbacks by Roger Lancelyn Green, in which he retold a wide selection of old myths. One volume included tales from ancient Egypt, and the antics of their strange gods with those human bodies topped by animals’ or birds’ heads; another recounted the Norse legends, and the grim adventures that befell the people and gods of Middle Earth. The ones I liked best, however, were those about the Greek legends, and in particular, Green’s retelling of the Trojan War, in which wily Odysseus and his friend Diomedes contributed just as much to the success as the physical might of Ajax, or the harsh valour of Achilles. I read them over and over again, and thought I knew everything about the Greeks’ ten-year campaign to avenge Paris’s abduction of the beautiful Helen.

Of course, I knew of The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed (according to legend) by the blind minstrel Homer, and standing at the fountainhead of Western literature. It came as quite a surprise, however, when I finally came to read The Iliad to discover that it didn’t relate the whole ten years of the Trojan War, and all the ins and outs of that dreadful conflict. It is, instead, restricted to a period of about eight weeks, towards the end of the war (although, of course, the protagonists did not know that), and focuses primarily on the bitter dispute between Achilles, unrivalled hero of the Greeks, and Agamemnon, overall leader of the Greek forces and brother of Menelaus, from whom Paris had abducted Helen.

That dispute hinged round two young noble women (Briseis and Chryseis) whom the Greeks seized from one of the cities near Troy that they had sacked. Briseis, was given to Achilles, while Chryseis was delivered to Agamemnon. Chryseis was the daughter of a senior priest of Apollo, and her father came to plead with Agamemnon for her release, offering a large ransom in return. Agamemnon, notable for his pride, anger and utter lack of wisdom or humanity, scorned Chryseis’s father, sending him away empty handed. The priest scurries away, praying to Apollo, whom he addresses by various titles, including the apparently innocuous title ‘Lord of Mice’. Seeing his priest treated with such disdain, Apollo vents his rage. We quickly learn that the epithet, ‘Lord of Mice’ refers to his ability to send plague, which was spread throughout the ancient world by rodents. The Greek camp is soon overrun with a virulent plague, which renders far worse casualties than the Trojans had achieved. After consulting various oracles, the wiser Greek leaders persuade Agamemnon to send Chryseis back to her father, and offer huge sacrifices to appease Apollo. He grudgingly does so, but then insists upon seizing Briseis from Achilles to replace her. This so angers Achilles that (‘sulking in his tent’) he withdraws his men from the campaign. Without the ferocious Achilles and his loyal Myrmidons, the Greeks falter on the battlefield, and lose much of the ground they had so painstakingly won over the previous nine years.

Pat Barker’s book revisits this ancient story from the women’s perspective. It is told mainly by Briseis, a young woman who had been a princess in her own realm (a city state that fell within the overall domain of Troy). She is captured when her city was sacked by the Greeks, and dragged back to their camp. Terrified, and unsure whether she will even survive the first night, she finds herself given to Achilles. In the Roger Lancelyn Green version that I read as a boy, it was merely stated that she was passed to him as a maidservant. Barker shuns any such euphemism, and makes it abundantly clear that Briseis’s future will be as a sexual plaything of Achilles, on call whenever required.

Briseis is a great character. Caught in a dreadful predicament, she remains strong and resourceful, emerging with far more dignity than her cruel and petulant captors. Achilles is more sympathetically drawn than Agamemnon, who is boundlessly cruel, petty and essentially weak, but still shows no ability to see Briseis as a person rather than just an object to gratify his demands. The only Greek male who displays any sort of humanity is Patroclus, Achilles’s lifelong companion and friend.

Where Barker excels is in taking a story with which her readers are already familiar, and successfully reversing the perspective while retaining all the immediacy and draw of the plot. Anyone familiar with the story of Troy knows what is about to happen, and how the different fates of Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, and Troy itself will play out. Despite that, the reader is hooked immediately, and drawn in to Briseis’s story. The book races along, driven by Barker’s clear prose.

It is easy to see why this book, offering a wholly new interpretation on what is literally the oldest tale in western literature was nominated for so many awards. It is a dazzling success. ( )
1 vote Eyejaybee | May 22, 2019 |
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“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after taking the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles…Begin where they first quarrelled, Agamemnon, the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarrelling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarrelling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”

—The Human Stain, Philip Roth”
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For my children, John and Anna; and, as always,

in loving memory of David
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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.”
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It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they'd have Helen's eyes. Or if they fastened their cinctures the same way she did hers, they'd have Helen's breasts. All this mindless imitation of a woman they affected to despise...No wonder she laughed at them.
Poor Mynes. His idea of female beauty was a woman so fat if you slapped her backside in the morning she'd still be jiggling when you got back home for dinner.
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