THE PLOT: ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker is a retelling of the Iliad that focuses on Briseis – the slave girl that Achilles and Agamemnon fought over in the final year of the Trojan War. When Achilles storms the small city of Lyrnessus, he takes its former queen, Briseis, as his prize. She is forced to serve and sleep with him until Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army, quarrels with Achilles and claims Briseis as his own. This causes Achilles to withdraw from the fighting; but, as the Greeks begin to lose the war, everyone starts to question whether yet another fight over a girl is worth it.
RATING: Although I love a mythological retelling, I was hesitant about this book because I’ve seen lots of mediocre reviews on #bookstagram. When I saw a charity shop copy, I thought I’d give it a chance. Sadly, I agree with the majority of the booksta-community and feel that this book misses the mark. It’s marketed as a retelling of the Trojan War from the women’s point of view, but I don’t feel like Briseis had any agency. Even though I accept that she’s a slave, I wanted her to do something, anything, such as have her own love interest (bonus points if it was with another slave woman), or try to escape, or to be the one who convinced Patroclus to wear Achilles armour (3,000-year-old spoiler – not sorry). The main problem is that the storytelling is so focussed on Achilles and the male characters, I felt like the book didn’t deliver on its premise. Therefore, I’m giving it three stars.
GOOD BITS: The writing is beautiful and I can see why the author switched from first person to third person from a craft point of view. The writing really sings in the descriptions of Achilles by the sea and the intensity of his love for Patroclus. However, I began to skim read the beautiful writing as it had absolutely no bearing on the plot. I want to acknowledge that the author asserts that this is Achilles’ story towards the end, and she probably wanted to maintain a semblance of historical accuracy, I wish she was bolder and centered the plot around Briseis and her actions.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The book starts with Briseis telling her story to someone in first person past-tense, which is a strong opening and makes you care for the character. The reader is left wondering who she’s telling her story to, as the other person sometimes interrupts or she repeats their questions. However, as the book goes on it begins to switch to third person to narrate events that Briseis isn’t present for. This means we lose focus on Briseis as our main character and the lack of rhythm to the switching POVs feels very clunky and disorientating. Additionally, Briseis has very little agency – she doesn’t do anything so it’s hard to root for her.
Also, I have to say that I really disliked the characterisation of another slave girl as fat and enjoying too much food. It seemed like Briseis really judged this character for her weight and there was absolutely no reason for this weird antagonism story-wise.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Natalie Haynes, ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller and ‘Troy’ by Adele Geras. However, I think the comparison titles that I’ve suggested are more exciting and entertaining books to read. If you are a Grecophile, don’t let me put you off. But if you find yourself drifting from the page and wondering when Briseis is going to actually do something, then don’t say I didn’t warn you.