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Book Review: The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker

Greek-Trojan brutality jarrs with the contemporary reflections of the silent concubine. Think Handmaid's Tale, but without the pretence of purity and childbirth.

Exploring the 'female story' of The Iliad and the fall of Troy, Pat Barker's new novel is narrated by Briseis. A former queen of her city, she is now kept as a sex slave for Achilles (and briefly for Agamemnon), as well as being called upon in their more sociable moments to pour the wine. Having watched her captors kill her own brothers and husband when their city fell, Briseis is cynical and unemotional in her storytelling. This is not her story, she emplores. It is his.

Set towards the end of the 10 year Trojan war, we are guided through the fleeting introductions and then brutal battle deaths of the men whose names have gone down in history as the heroes of the Greeks: Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax. The female perspective describes the murders, burials and sacrifices with unflinching factuality: sympathy has no place in the unrelenting warzone where women are prizes won after killing their husbands.

What makes past conflicts 'digestible' to us as modern readers is often the distance and otherness we feel from the people involved. Usually, characters are displaced into their own eras and although we may empathise with them, the violence is somehow accepted as being 'of that time.' Cleverly executed in this novel is Briseis' contemporary voice and the interjection of today's ugly alpha-male phrases: 'alright lads, she'll do.' At one point they even start a rugby chant, which was even more disturbing in audiobook format. All of a sudden it becomes a bit too close to home, not making for easy reading/listening as we see the characters as real people. In reality, no words from women of this era survive - and very few from men. We don't actually know how the captured female slaves felt, but what Barker does is imagine how a modern woman might feel in their situation.

Building on top of layer upon layers of existing narrative and myth, I think there is always something fascinating about the stories of the gods and mortals in Homeric Greece. This year has seen a trend in re-creations from that source material, and I would definitely not recommend reading Madeleine Miller's Circe too closely before or after The Silence of The Girls. Far too confusing.

I actually preferred Circe; probably because of the charmingly whimsical nature of her witchcraft and herbal moments on her isolated island. Her powers as a demi-god provide us with light relief amongst scenes of battle and rape - a variation in tone which is sorely lacking in Barker's trudgingly monotonous slave story. I'm sure that intensity was needed for such subject matter, but I couldn't recommended it as an 'enjoyable' book.

Some critics were outraged at the novel's omission from the Man Booker shortlist (Pat Barker has won the Booker Prize before). However, as much as I'm glad I finished it, I don't think this will go down as a favourite for me, either. Overshadowed by Circe, and just a bit too heavy for my personal taste, though I recognise the importance of telling the forgotten stories that may not look so pretty. I respect it, but I'm not sure I liked it.


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