The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls is a reimagining of the Trojan War told from the perspective of Briseis, the woman forced into slavery and given to Achilles, only to be the apparent cause of his quarrel with Agamemnon. It starts with Briseis taken from her city by the Greeks and follows the story of her, Achilles, Patroclus, and the eventual fall of Troy.

Having Briseis as the central character and narrator allows for the depiction of the women, mostly slaves, as woven into the Trojan War as the men. Female perspective is given, though Achilles and Patroclus do have occasional point of view moments in the narrative as well as Briseis’ voice. Perhaps the most notable element of this perspective shift is the sense of listening in: women are not only not involved in the decisions, but often their knowledge is overheard, gossip rather than direct speech. Particularly by the end of the novel, Briseis is telling Achilles’ story, but there are parts she does not see, must report as other women saw. This highlights the titular silence, but also is a reminder of the sense of retelling, of the innumerable versions of the Trojan War that have been told.

Much of the novel does not feel hugely different from a lot of other novels and retellings of the Trojan War, and the style feels thoroughly fitting to Greek myth modern retelling, using a lot of description of senses and translating speech into harsh, modern phrases to get across realities of war, armies, and sex. However, there are moments that stand out and make The Silence of the Girls feel more than just another Trojan tale; in particular, Barker’s depiction of Achilles’ grief at Patroclus’ death, which takes on a visceral quality as described by both a third person narrator and by Briseis’ narrative voice. Achilles’ sense of loss also at his own self for the qualities that only Patroclus knew about him redeemed any of the elements that felt like they were just doing the same thing as other novels for me.

The Silence of the Girls is undoubtably one for fans of classical retellings, particularly those focusing on female characters and showing other sides to war. From the title, I was expecting more female voices within the novel, but actually the predominance of male characters even within this book perhaps shows what lasts of the Troy story even when women are given a voice.