Every time I went to say The Silence of the Girls I always mistakenly said The Silence of the Lambs! Although following different plots, Pat Barker’s novel is just as dark and troubling. But sometimes dark and troubling is what is needed to get feminist notions across.
The Silence of the Girls is a feminist retelling of Homer’s The Iliad. The main narrator is Briseis. She was a minor Trojan queen than was taken when Greece overthrow her city. On return to their camp, she is awarded to Achilles. The best girl for the best fighter.
The novel then follows Briseis thoughts and experience. What she thinks of Achilles. What it is like sharing a bed with him and his sexual preferences. And of course his love of Patroclus. And thrown into this narrative feminist thoughts dominate. Briseis discusses what it is like to be a slave and the lack of freedom these men give her.
And although she hates them for removing her from her home and family, she also displays an understanding of why these men are the way they are. She never depicts Agamemnon in a positive light, but you can see a shift of opinion towards Achilles. She cannot forgive him for the torment he has caused her, but she recognises his loss and suffering too. A wonderful depiction of what feminism should be about. And if Briseis can do it during the horrors of the Trojan war, why can’t we do it now?
Patroclus, already a favourite of so many readers, is further presented in a positive light in Barker’s novel too. From the moment Briseis arrived, he was kind to her, making sure she was alright. At first, Briseis couldn’t understand why he was being nice to her. She thought there was a catch. Barker sadly depicts the lack of trust women have for men. It just shows how messed up gender stereotypes are.
And I know what you’re thinking, there are so many Greek retellings, why should I read this one? I have read the original texts and honestly forgot most of the content. Reading long poems can be quite a bore! This is my first retelling (ignoring Home Fire) and I think these books deserve all the attention they are getting. They are empowering for young readers and also a great introduction to the original texts. It is an easier and more accessible way of garnering pretentious knowledge!
So if you are put off reading these Greek retellings because you haven’t read the original, don’t worry! These characters can be understood in isolation as well. The Silence of the Girls is a great place to start. It is fun and witty which balance out the sad lives these girls would have lived.