Review: Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

SilenceOfTheGirls-CoverSynopsis: The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, who continue to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and cooly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history.

Title: Silence of the Girls
Author: Pat Barker
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pub Date: 30th August 2018
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9780241338070

Rating: 5stars

I read an ARC received from Hamish Hamilton via Netgalley.

“‘Silence becomes a woman.’ Every woman I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying.”

So… I’m going to find it extraordinarily difficult not to freak out whilst writing this review. This book is JUST SO GOOD that it’s going to be impossible not to throw in some caps locked sentences.


Silence of the Girls does not have the romanticism that Madeline Miller’s rendition of Achilles does. And that is what makes this book so great.

It doesn’t glorify a man who loved war and brutality; nor does it exalt in the idea of courage and fame. We see the story of Achilles for what it really is…

Brutality, death, and survival.

“Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles… How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher’.”

This is a story that so many women have faced over the centuries – and a story that has rarely ever been told.

This isn’t a happy tale. There is rape, suicide, graphic violence, and death. Barker’s way of dealing with these acts, however, is probably the best I’ve seen in a long while. The book can be brutal but, it’s treated as a fact, rather than a plot device. She neither skirts around the issue nor uses it as a tool to shock. It is an outcome of war. No more. No less.

“We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.”

Barker re-weaves a classic where women are present, where they are not weak – she depicts women as living, breathing humans with opinions and emotions.

What I love about Silence of the Girls is that it doesn’t try to be a feminist rewrite, but becomes all the better for it. Briseis isn’t a warrior queen fighting for her freedom. She is a woman of her time; she knows the rules by which she is required to live, and she does not fight them. But she is still a person and, no matter what happens to her, she does not stop having her own views.

What will they make of us, the people of those unimaginably distant times? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps? I just hope they manage to work out who the lovers were.”

If you like Madeline Miller…

If you’re a feminist…

If you enjoy reading about people who are often forgotten in history…


One thought on “Review: Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Just found missed reading Circe which I loved. It seems opinion is really divided on which is better – Circe or Silence of the Girls. Seems like I need to read the latter based on your enthusiasm for it.

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