Book Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker ★★★

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“Nobody looks him in the face now, it’s as if his grief frightens them. What are they afraid of? That one day they’ll have to endure pain like this? Or that they never will, that they’re incapable of it, because grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced.”

I am not sure how I feel about this book, to be honest. I was really excited about it, when I first heard of it. I have loved the character of Briseis for years and enjoyed her complicated dynamic with Achilles (from what I have encountered in both the Iliad and various adaptations/retellings). So this book instantly caught my eye. On the one hand, it was very interesting and beautifully written. But on the other hand….I don’t know. It felt like something was missing.

I think the main issue I had while reading this book was that it never felt cohesive to me. It seemed like the author didn’t know what kind of story she wanted to tell or what the tone of the book should be. I understand that the subject matter was very complex and traumatic, for almost every character involved, which can lead to some unexpected/unconventional reactions, but it often seemed like the author wasn’t sure how she wanted to portray the people and events of the story. At times, we were supposed to view Achilles with disgust and anger and resentment, like Briseis did, but then other times he was painted in a sympathetic or heroic light. It all was a little confusing.

And, it’s even more confusing to me, because then I think, “Well maybe we are supposed to be confused about how to view the characters or how to feel about the events, because surely that is how Briseis and the other women are feeling. Surely they are going through a huge range of emotions in response to their tragic situation.” So, I don’t know. I think mostly the author did do it on purpose, to convey those complex emotions, and I do think she was successful in that. It just also left me a little unsatisfied.

Part of the complication, I believe, came from the dual perspectives. It felt like the author included Achilles perspective, not to further Briseis’ story, but just to include Achilles in the narrative, which wasn’t really the purpose of the book, seeing as it was a feminist retelling of the Trojan War. I think his chapters distracted from the story of the women that the author was trying so hard to depict here. Because, unfortunately, Achilles and his tale of woe, anger, and revenge, became the most interesting part. Once Achilles started getting page time, I felt like he became a more nuanced and vibrant character than anyone else, even Briseis’ did. In a book trying to shed light on the horrors and strength of the women involved, it shouldn’t have been a man who was the one I wanted to read about. This is touched on by Briseis herself, as she remarks that all of her time spent in Achilles presence was HIS story, not hers, even if she was a part of it. It was never truly her story. So maybe, again, this was done on purpose, but I think it could have been handled a little bit better.

Briseis as a character was solid, but kind of frustrating. She was silently strong and kind and hopeful, even when such terrible things were happening to her. However, she never felt fully present. I know that withdrawing and being outwardly unresponsive can be a reaction to such traumas, so it is difficult to really critique her character, but I felt like she was overly passive about some things. I think the writing also made it feel like we were skipping over her initial reactions to a lot of things and we were then given her thoughts after much time had passed and she had had a time to think about things, accept them, or resign herself to them, since she was narrating the story from years later. It was an interesting choice, but at times, made it feel like we were not in the immediate action of the plot.

The writing overall was very pretty. There were some truly gorgeous passages in this book and very poignant reflections, as well. There were also some genuinely hard parts to read. The author certainly never shied away from the terrifying, awful, and brutal parts of war/wartime life for the captured women. The descriptions were so well done, whether they were describing something horrifying and bloody, or beautiful and delicate. The author has a great grip on tangible, transcendent description. The setting and the history behind the narration was also clearly very well researched, and portrayed wonderfully in the book. The descriptions of the camp were so fascinating, from what they ate and drank, to how the women worked, to the weapons, and the housing. Very interesting. And the chapters about the plague had me feeling like I needed to wash my hands every ten minutes. Bleh! At times, I felt like the dialogue was rather stilted and awkward, however, and that came across as the author’s weakest area. Sometimes it read like the characters were speaking in modern language, which was jarring and took me out of the story. The pacing too was a bit weird, as we had such a rush of action in the beginning and end, almost too rushed in the end I think, and then a heavy lag in the middle. This did convey the sense of tedium and waiting that surrounded the camp, so it was a good tool for that, but it did get a tad too slow in some parts. As a whole, though, it was written very well and I enjoyed the writing style.

The side characters were not explored all that much, and we mostly just got their personalities from the Iliad itself. I’m thinking Agamemnon, Odysseus, Ajax, Priam, Hector, Paris, etc. here. The only male figure, other than Achilles, who we were given some more insight into was Patroclus. He was a great character and his relationships with the others were a highlight of the story. As for the women, we learned more about them than we ever did in other Iliad stories, but at times, it felt like the author was just listing off traits and names without really focusing on them. Or just giving them qualities that sounded strong or respectable or brave. Not saying they weren’t that, but I’d rather read that and be shown that, versus the author just telling me.

I think, that too, is a slight gripe I had with the book. The message the author was trying to get across, the life of the women during the battle of Troy and how they were mistreated, was a little heavy-handed. I do think she did an amazing job portraying the bleakness of their lives and how it changed them and the traumas inflicted on them. She took such care in looking at multiple perspectives of the women or how different women handled their situation. But still, it felt at times very much like a modern day feminist using a young woman from the 13th Century BCE as a mouthpiece for her beliefs. I am not saying that is a bad thing. It is a retelling and to tell it in this way from the perspective of a character we never get to hear the side of is amazing. I was so excited for this book when I heard about it! But I think it could have been done better. It did detract from the actual story sometimes, unfortunately.

So, this may not have been the most decisive or clear review, but honestly that’s how the book was! I just wasn’t sure at the end how I really felt about it. I liked it and I thought it was well done, but I didn’t feel all that satisfied. Maybe just the sheer bleakness of the book made it hard to enjoy completely? I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t happy how some of the characters were written or how they interacted with one another. I really don’t know. (Not gonna lie, I am slightly suspicious that part of my reaction has to do with the fact that I absolutely loved the 2004 film version Troy, and I cannot reconcile the characters as they are depicted here with the ones that I know and adore from the movie 🤷‍♂️😬. Oops.) All I can say is I am glad I read it and I did enjoy it. I think it was a great look into the lives of the women during this time in history, a great showcase of their hardships and how they managed to survive. I really did like that aspect.

What did you guys think? Are your thoughts any clearer than mine?

Let me at those rats, that’s all I’m saying!

Title: The Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Genre: Historical Fiction | Historical | Retellings | Greek Mythology | Fiction | Fantasy |Trojan War | Troy
Publication Date: September 4th, 2018
Page Count: 291 pages
Buy It: Wordery Book Depository

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