First things, first. The Silence of the Girls is the best book that I have read so far this year.
Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles … How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we call him ‘the butcher’.Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls
Not bad for an opening paragraph and the book just gets better. Pat Barker has set about retelling The Iliad. Only this time instead of seeing the story told from the men’s point of view we look through a 19 year old girl’s eyes. Briseis, Queen of Lyrnessus has been taken captive after the Greek’s sacked her city, she has been given to Achilles as his prize of honour. He has killed her brothers and her husband and now she must sleep with him.
The Silence of the Girls is all about war. It goes on all around us but apart from watching the sacking of Lyrnessus from the high walls of its citadel we never see any fighting. Once they are captured the women never leave the camp, they can hear the battle, but see it. They tend the dying, dress the dead but never set foot on the field of battle itself.
Briseis appears in The Iliad we see her given to Achilles, we see Agamemnon take her and the pair feud over her. We don’t, however see the other captive women. The Silence of the Girls shows us life in the rape camps. Women do have a choice, they can sleep with their captors or die. And yet, and yet. Achilles does not seem to be a total monster. Agamemnon is awful, but then he is awful in The Iliad too. This is a retelling of the tale for the #MeToo generation and yet Pat Barker must have started writing it before the hashtag.
This is a story that has been told over and over again for thousands of years. Chances are that you will have a seen a film based on the book, maybe read The Iliad itself and if not, then the tale of Helen of Troy will have wafted past at some point. Even though you know what is going to happen, I sat up long into the night reading just one more page. Now the search is on, will I read a better book this year?
- The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
- Published by Hamish Hamilton
- Hardback £18.99, Kindle £9.99
Seeking inspiration for your next read? Check out my Best Books 2017 post
Disclosure: The Silence of the Girls was sent to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review