The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Devastating Feminist Retelling of the Trojan War

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Rating: Orange StarOrange StarOrange StarOrange StarOrange Star

Category: Literary fiction, Retellings

Format: Paperback (local independent bookshop)

Content Warnings: Suicide, references to self-harm, death of multiple family members, rape and sexual assault, enslavement, graphic violence, grief

Synopsis:

“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'”

The bards sing of Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, but never the slave who shared his bed, Briseis. Taken from her fallen city, Lyrnessus, she is brought to the Greek camp besieging Troy and given as a prize to Achilles. No woman is better placed to strip bare the true inglorious agonies of war, both on and off the battlefield.

Review:

First Page Impressions

I first encountered the author Pat Barker when studying her Regeneration trilogy at A-Level, which is set at the Craiglockhart hospital for shell-shocked men during the First World War.

Barker’s matter-of-fact tone is perfectly suited to overturning the heroic narratives of war. She is able to replace these glorified stories with something far more visceral and ambiguous, whether writing about 20th century conflicts or those of ancient mythology.

I don’t tend to get as emotionally invested with books I’m studying, perhaps because the annotating and note-taking creates a greater sense of detachment. Yet I immediately found myself deeply moved by The Silence of the Girls and this attachment only got stronger. At the moment, I’m trying to persuade my Mum to read it so I have someone to talk about it with and vent my feelings!

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

Full disclosure: I absolutely adore mythology retellings, particularly those of Ancient Greece. In fact, I’m currently in the middle of writing my dissertation proposal on this very topic!

So I already knew from the get-go that I was probably going to love this book, but I didn’t expect it to become one of my all-time favourite retellings. Barker managed to include so much – from female solidarity to commentary on storytelling and power – that I ran out of stickers to colour code everything I wanted to note!

Our narrator Briseis is given a feminist awareness that lends her story reverberating significance:

“Yes, the death of young men in battle is a tragedy – I’d lost four brothers, I didn’t need anybody to tell me that. A tragedy worthy of any number of laments – but theirs is not the worst fate. I looked at Andromache, who’d have to live the rest of her amputated life as a slave, and I thought: We need a new song.”

The characters of Achilles and Patroclus are fascinating too, portrayed in their vulnerability as well as their sickening brutality.

Mood

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Mood Cloud

Diversity and Representation

The Silence of the Girls is the kind of fiercely feminist retelling that I love to read. Briseis’ voice is placed front and centre, with the battle scenes and masculine world forced into a back seat.

If I did have to make one critique of this book, I would have liked issues of class to be addressed in more detail. Even though all of the surviving women from Lyrnessus are enslaved to Greek soldiers, there remains a form of hierarchy between those who were formerly royalty, such as our narrator Briseis, and those who were enslaved even before the war and have merely transferred “ownership”.

“But nothing’s ever simple, is it? Incredibly, there were some women whose lives had changed for the better. One girl, who’d been a slave in Lyrnessus – and a kitchen slave at that, the lowest of the low – was now the concubine of a great lord”

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker Quote


Fund Literacy, Care for the Environment
Themes

  • Sex and gender
  • History
  • Power
  • Desire
  • Narrative
  • Friendship/ solidarity
  • The body
  • War
  • Motherhood

Beyond the Book

There is always an untold story. Retellings are able to make this perfectly clear, and Barker delivers it up as a powerful message in The Silence of the Girls. 

The more retellings I read, the more I look for these untold stories everywhere, not just in myths and fairy tales but also on social media, when watching a documentary or listening to the news. There is definitely a meaningful relationship between storytelling and power.

Discussion Questions

  1. What did you make of the characters Achilles and Patroclus? Were there moments when, despite their brutal acts, you wanted to pity them, and did this create emotional conflict?
  2. Share some of your favourite feminist quotes from the novel.
  3. How did The Silence of the Girls compare with your understanding of the Greek myths and/or other retellings you’ve encountered?

Favourite quote:

“We’re going to survive – our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams – and in their worst nightmares too.”

Read if: You want to become immersed in a devastating feminist retelling of the Trojan war.

Buy Now on Better World Books:

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If you liked The Silence of the Girls and are looking for another epic feminist retelling, try Circe by Madeline Miller.


Have you read The Silence of the Girls? Do you have any mythology retellings to recommend? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!


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19 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Devastating Feminist Retelling of the Trojan War

    1. Thank you so much for the kind comment! I hope you enjoy The Silence of the Girls as much as I did, I’d love to hear your thoughts. And yes, I recently finished A Thousand Ships and will be scheduling a review shortly. I still appreciate the recommendation though! For me The Silence of the Girls pulled slightly ahead of A Thousand Ships with its sheer rawness, but to be honest they’re both pretty epic! X

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Looking forward to your review! This year so far has been filled with Troy-related reading – I also read Circe this year and The song of Achilles, and Heroes by Stephen Fry. Don’t know exactly where it suddenly came from – must be a decade of so since I saw it in school…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Great review! I’m so glad you loved this one, it really is an impressive book. I read it a couple years ago already but it really has stuck with me in a way other myth retellings haven’t. You bring up a good point about class playing a role in the womens’ experiences; since this story focuses so heavily on Briseis I didn’t really notice how different her experience might have been compared to the others’, and I agree that is something worth thinking about and would’ve been nice to see addressed within the text.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! 🥰 I’m really happy to hear you found it as impressive as I did – it’s definitely going to stick with me for a long time too. And I’m glad you found the point about class interesting, to be honest I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is written from both Penelope’s perspective and her maids’. I recommend this one too if you enjoy retellings! 📚❤️ X x x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for the recommendation, I do enjoy Atwood’s writing and have been curious about THe Penelopiad. I’m glad to hear it considers multiple perspectives!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for a lovely review – yes… I read Circe and The Song of Achilles last year – and then The Silence of the Girls… It blew me away – and like you, I appreciated that despite their terrible situation, these girls aren’t simply portrayed as helpless victims. I’m now looking forward to listening to Stephen Fry’s version of the Trojan War, which is supposed to be released sometime next year, I think…

    Like

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