Book review: The Silence of the Girls

I put off reading The Silence of the Girls for quite some time. Partly because I knew it was going to be a sad, tough read. And partly because it would signal the end of my Greek myth binge. Now I’ve read it, I wish I’d put it off for even longer, because nothing will live up to the first read of this exquisite novel.

Pat Barker is one of my long-time favourites. I read her Regeneration trilogy when studying war literature at college, and it remains one of my favourite historical series. She has such a rare talent for storytelling: her books immerse you into their worlds so fully that it takes a while to remember what year you’re actually living in.

The Girls is no different. I read most of it on two train journeys; one into London and one out of London. On the way in, I missed my stop and arrived late to a huge event I was organising. On the way home, I cried and embarrassed the man sat next to me (though he could’ve chosen ANY seat in a nearly empty train so his fault really).

Briseis is the main narrator in The Girls, which after reading Song of Achilles, I was pretty pleased about. I loved how Madeline Miller portrayed her, especially her relationship with Patroclus. I was not, however, looking forward to the end of the book and reliving Briseis’ tragic death.

Barker weaves together both past and present, creating a story that almost defies its historical fiction tag. She gives this retelling a feminist angle: she gives these stolen women a voice and an agenda. She gives them a reason to live that’s far more than serving the kings and princes who slaughtered their families.

“’Better to die on Achilles’ burial mound,’ I heard her say, ‘than live and be a slave.’
Oh, these fierce young women.”

The language meanders between modern slang and lyrical sentences, reminiscent of Homer’s original. At the start, I found the modern language a bit jarring – hearing Odysseus say ‘cheers’ and ‘mate’ was unexpected! The way this counterbalances with the lyrical, poetic language almost portrays Briseis’ own situation: from royalty to slave.

“In fact, everything about that evening seemed unreal, dreamlike – and infinitely fragile, like the bubbles that form on a breaking wave, there a moment and gone forever.”

In The Girls, Barker has done the impossible: she has made me like Achilles. While you can’t rewrite The Illiad and make him get over his vanity and obsession with reputation (although I would like to read that), Barker has given him a softer, more caring frame. The raw grief that Miller shows in Achilles isn’t depicted so viscerally, but his treatment of Briseis and the run-up to his own death shows a character who has learnt and grown. I felt that was missing in Miller’s retelling: Achilles remained Achilles to the end of the story.

“Instead, he rests his forehead against a horse’s muzzle, feeling its warm breath on his skin, and this contact with a non-human creature makes him feel almost human again.”

“His life rests like a dandelion clock on the palm of his open hand, a thing so light the merest breath of wind can carry it away.”

I liked how Barker set up Patroclus’ death too: that it was the fault of the kings, not his own crazed idea to appease Achilles. For me, this takes some of the blame off Achilles: it was the kings who manipulated Patroclus into this situation; it wasn’t solely borne from a selfless love.

“Nestor stood back, watching the possibilities work like maggots under the young man’s skin. He’d said enough.”

Barker must be commended for giving this tragedy a bittersweet ending. Far from the harrowing last scenes of The Song of Achilles, The Girls sees Briseis survive, able to bring up Achilles’ child with Alcimus. Achilles’ death is sad, but not tragic. Briseis speaks about him as if he’s simply in another room; like he hasn’t quite disappeared from her life.

“Achilles’ heel. All of the legends that grew up around him that was by far the silliest.”

“Another legend: that his horses were immortal, a gift from the gods on the occasion of his mother’s marriage to Peleus – a guilt offering you might say. The horses are supposed to have vanished after his death. I think about them sometimes, lazily cropping the grass in a green field, far away from the din of battle, being tended by a groom too fuddled in his wits to marvel why his horses never grow old. I like that story.”

The Girls is an easy read, but a really bloody tough one at the same time. It’s violent in every sense of the word: Barker’s Briseis doesn’t shy away from the gory details, whether she’s describing rape, murder or abuse. In The Girls, Barker explores blame and anger. And unsurprisingly, it’s never the men who can be blamed. It’s the gods, it’s each other. It’s the weather, it’s curses. And it’s often – well, nearly always – the women. This retelling goes further than embellishing on relationships and painting tragic pictures. It’s a critical look at the devastation of wars caused by men, and how it’s everyone else who suffers, rather than those in charge.

“Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”



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