The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker: Lavinia’s Book Pick, March 2019

the silence of the girls.jpgThe Silence of the Girls is yet another retelling of mythology – these are ‘toute la rage’ now, as the French undoubtedly say, and I have read the good, bad and ugly of them, so it was with both a little shiver of anticipation and a heavy dread deep in my stomach that I sat down to enjoy my birthday hardback. A hardback is always a commitment – a heavy weight to lift, and a constriction to reading at home rather than on the train – and I wanted it to be good.

Reader, I was not disappointed. The Silence of the Girls is not always an easy read. Being narrated by the Trojan prisoner Briseis, and set among the Trojan prisoner-women in the Greek camp, the content is heavily focused on rape. But it is not written about in a voyeuristic or exploitative way, offered up for titillation or framed as something that eventually becomes romantic. It is handled with sensitivity, nuance, and – among the women in the camp – a kind of grim nihilistic humour that feels very real.

One of the real charms of The Silence of the Girls is the way it avoids that tedious historical/mythic fiction ‘forsooth good sir’ way of talking. The characters speak to one another like real humans (in that way it’s very much like The Favourite). Occasionally this comes out rather oddly – there’s something slightly jarring to me about the characters saying ‘for God’s sake’ in a polytheistic culture – but that’s easy to forgive when it’s in service of a realism that conveys the powerful emotions and human relationships of the Iliad in a way that feels convincing and immediate.

Of course, despite being a book told by and about women, it is also heavily dominated by the figure of Achilles. In the Iliad itself Achilles spends most of the time sulking, but The Silence of the Girls offers another side that considers his relationships with his mother, with Patroclus, and with life away from the battlefield. He appears as an overgrown child, a complex and caring friend, a brute, and sometimes as a sensitive diplomat.

You’ll love this book if: 

– You like a good retelling of ancient myth
– You like a new perspective on an old story
– You like historical/mythic material told with humour

You might want to avoid this book if:

– You are sensitive to portrayals of violence, esp. sexual violence

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