The Silence of the Girls
I’ve been interested in mythology since I first started learning about it back in high school, and I’ve always been particularly fascinated by stories that center around the Trojan Wars. I’ve read several wonderful accounts over the years and I’m always looking for another one to sweep me away, so I was pleased at the opportunity to review Pat Barker’s latest novel, The Silence of the Girls. Unfortunately though, the book just didn’t work for me.
Before I get too far into this review, I want to make potential readers aware that this is an extremely violent novel and that a large number of the sexual acts within it are non-consensual. I wasn’t particularly surprised by this fact, since war in and of itself is a violent undertaking, but certain aspects of the story could prove distressing to some readers, and I want people to go into it with a clear idea of what to expect. There’s quite a bit of discussion of battle, but the most troublesome aspect of this book is the violence against women contained within. Again, it’s not completely unexpected, but Ms. Barker goes into quite a bit of detail when describing the physical, sexual, and emotional abuse female prisoners of war were forced to endure. There’s a scene where a combat general spits a large wad of phlegm into the mouth of the main character, and I literally felt my stomach lurch with revulsion. This is just one of numerous examples I could give, and while it’s far from the most shocking, it’s one that will remain with me for a long time to come.
Briseis is a captive living out the war’s final days in one of the many Greek camps. She used to be the Queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, but that all changed when Achilles, one of Greece’s prized warriors, murdered her family and completely sacked her city. Now, she’s forced to act as his concubine while she waits for the final outcome of the war that has raged for the past ten years.
She has a difficult time adjusting to her new station in life, and can’t help but think back on life as a queen and dream of one day returning to her former station, even though she’s well aware of the futility of such thoughts. Her dreams and memories are the only things that help her stay sane as she is forced to endure all manner of degradation at the hands of her captors.
It’s hard to believe, but things get a whole lot worse for Briseis when Agamemnon, one of Greece’s political leaders, demands Achilles surrender her to him. At first, Achilles refuses to comply, but he eventually bows to the pressure of those around him and agrees to hand her over. Life in Agamemnon’s camp makes what she experienced at Achilles’ hands seem like a walk in the park, but Briseis is determined to survive until the end of the war in hopes of finally being granted her freedom.
Most of the story is told in first person from Briseis’ point of view with a few chapters from Achilles’ perspective thrown in. His chapters were especially difficult to read, as they go off on quite a few tangents, and there are portions that reminded me of a fever dream or maybe a very complex delusion. I found it very difficult to separate what was really going on from what was only occurring in Achilles’ imagination, and, if I’m honest, I lost interest pretty quickly.
Briseis is a strong-minded, independent heroine who does her best to get used to a completely new way of life. She’s the kind of character I’m usually drawn to, but there was something about Ms. Barker’s writing that kept me from fully connecting with her. There’s a lot of telling instead of showing here, something I found quite frustrating, and it made it impossible to feel like I really knew Briseis as a person.
This isn’t a terribly long book, but it took me quite a while to finish it. It’s not uncommon for me to finish a compelling story in a day, but I had to force myself to make it to the end of this one. The huge amount of violence, the tangential quality of some of the writing, and my inability to relate to the heroine make The Silence of the Girls a book I can’t recommend.
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