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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Fantasy

The Silence of the Girls

by Pat Barker

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Quick take

A queen of Troy is caught between Achilles and Agamemnon when she is captured and forced into slavery in this ferocious retelling of The Iliad.

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Synopsis

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. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis's perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker's latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives--and it is nothing short of magnificent.

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Content warning

This book contains mentions of sexual assault.

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Get an early look from the first pages of Pat Barker's Silence of the Girls.
The Silence of the Girls

Part One

1

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.”

Swift-footed Achilles. Now there’s an interesting one. More than anything else, more than brilliance, more than greatness, his speed defined him. There’s a story that he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”

Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.

I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls of Lyrnessus.

We women—children too, of course—had been told to go to the citadel, taking a change of clothes and as much food and drink as we could carry. Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house—though admittedly in my case the house was a palace—so to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday. Almost. Under the laughter and cheering and shouted jokes, I think we were all afraid. I know I was. We all knew the men were being pushed back—the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields—and we knew what awaited us if the city fell. And yet the danger didn’t feel real—not to me at any rate, and I doubt if the others were any closer to grasping it. How was it possible for these high walls that had protected us all our lives to fall?

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Why I love it

I'm a sucker for a good retelling, especially if it's about the Ancient Greeks. So I admit that I'm the exact right audience for Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. And yet, it still exceeded my expectations.

The Silence of the Girls recounts the story of The Iliad as seen through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan queen taken as a slave by Achilles as his reward for the sack of Lyrnessus. As the years-long battle wages on, Briseis tries to make sense of her new life in the encampments. She bonds with the other women held captive, finds something resembling friendship with Achilles's companion, Patroclus, and soon becomes a pawn between Achilles and King Agamemnon. I knew how it would all shake out from the opening page, but I never understood the story and characters like this.

The story of the Trojan War is often narrated with the presumption that the clashing of men's egos and swords is of the highest honor and import. What I love most about this novel is that Pat Barker strips the story of all that glamorization. There are no true "heroes" here. Instead, we are focused on the humanity of the women caught in the cross fire. Briseis may still be tied up in Achilles's story, but she is no longer silent.

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Member ratings (6,022)

  • Ashley H.

    Philadelphia, PA

    Amazing! This book haunted me. I could not stop thinking about it. I read about 2 other books on trojan war since this was however my favorite interpretation. I loved Barkers writing poignant and heartfelt

  • Eshita P.

    New York, NY

    A great retelling from a new perspective, showing sides of war and stories that are often forgotten. Quick, easy, engaging read. Some oddities in phrasing here and there but overall incredibly well written

  • Amanda E.

    Carson, CA

    OMG I loved this book!! I couldn’t put it down. The story was amazing and the writing was fantastic. I’ve always loved Greek Mythology, and reading the story from Briseis’ point of view was awesome.

  • Kelly M.

    Saint Augustine, FL

    This was one of those books that I just didn’t want to end. An absolutely fantastic read. I love retellings of classic stories and this one did not let me down. I really loved Briseis’ perspective.

  • Natalie G.

    North Richland Hills, TX

    This topic interests me in general, but having it written from a woman’s point of view made me want to read it even more. It was well written and an overall amazing story. I didn’t want to put it down

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