The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – the Trojan war told from a female perspective

Barker’s new novel provides an insight into the story of Briseis, a Trojan woman who becomes enslaved by the Greeks during the Trojan war.

Writers have been fascinated by the Trojan war for centuries- we first hear of the ancient incidents from Homer in his Iliad. Soon directors started to show interest in the story as well. Who doesn’t remember the great cast of the film “Troy” from 2004? However, nobody ever seems to get sick of Greek history. The warriors, the wars, the philosophers, the democracy, all of those male-dominated events can be found in different versions of popular culture throughout the years. In order to inform yourself about female fates in Greek history, you need to do some research – or simply read Barker’s new book “The Silence of the Girls.”

Pat Barker, known for her award-winning Regeneration trilogy, published her new novel “The Silence of the Girls” in 2018. Fans who enjoyed her dry and honest writing style in former works will be happy to find it in her new novel as well. Barker, who studied history, did good research on the Trojan war for the book. She presents Homer’s Iliad from a female point of view, as the focalizer is Briseis, wife of King Mynes, who gets enslaved by the Greeks and becomes Achilles’ concubine.

From time to time, the story is told from Achilles’ point of view, but the enslaved woman stays the main focalizer. At the same time, we get to know characters from Briseis’ past such as Helen, Paris, Hector and Mynes, whenever Briseis remembers them. Aside from those flashbacks, characters like Achilles, Patroclus and Agamemnon are presented more precisely as they are part of Briseis’ new life as an enslaved woman, someone who is seen as a prize for capturing a city instead of the intelligent woman that she is. She is now the concubine of the man who killed her husband and brothers. It is interesting to read the well-researched story from Briseis’ point of view, as she is presented as a human being with her own thoughts and feelings rather than the beautiful object that she is described as in Homer. Another bonus is that we do not need to force ourselves to read the original Iliad, which is a complicated poem written in dactylic hexameter. “The Silence of the Girls” is much more suitable for reading in modern times, while Barker still provides knowledge about Trojan and Greek culture, society, politics and mythology.

While the beginning and the ending of the novel are written in a very interesting way, the middle part is less enjoyable to read. This is perhaps not Barker’s fault. She cannot add more action to a real story to make it more interesting if she aims to present history as correctly as possible. Even so, it still seems like all Briseis does is sleep with men, listen to men and whenever she speaks with other women, talk about men. There was probably not much more a slave girl could do in a patriarchal time like this, but sometimes we are left to wonder what she actually wants and admires. What were her hobbies before she became Achilles’ bed girl? Did she love her husband? What did she think about Helen during their walks together? At the same time, Achilles is reduced to an angry man with a mother complex and homoerotic phantasies. Patroclus, on the other hand, is a very well described character. It becomes clear what his intentions, feelings and thoughts are. He develops as a likeable character throughout the novel and a man about whose fate I genuinely cared for. With everyone else’s characters I sometimes found it hard to identify and wished for a more precise description of their personalities. Barker focusses on specific characteristics a lot, while leaving out others completely.

Barker is not the first writer to tell the Trojan war from a female perspective. The German author Christa Wolf published the story of Cassandra in 1983. Cassandra was a Trojan priest and the half-sister of Paris. Wolf presented an insight into Kassandra’s astonishing life while criticising the patriarchal society of the time and the rituals which female priests had to participate in. Cassandra is, additionally, a more active character with a variety of feelings and talents. Even though Barker manages to present the dramatic fates of different women during the Trojan war in her book, it feels easier to identify with Cassandra than with Briseis.

Nevertheless, the book is easy to read and provides precise information about Greek customs, while portraying the experiences of women during their captivity brutally honestly. At the same time, it is not a book you struggle to put away once you started it. You also won’t follow for the story’s development with bated breath or cry when somebody dies. You will, however, become aware of the fates of Trojan women, of their tasks, thoughts and experiences. “The Silence of the Girls” is recommended for those who are interested in Greek history and for fans of fictions based on real events.

Anna Guderian

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