... unsentimental and beautiful ... The Silence of the Girls... is a fiction that acts as what we might think of as a séance in reverse: these novels do not use the living to summon the dead, but the dead to summon the living ... Barker establishes her register at the outset: there is beauty as well as terror in her language, in the physical world she creates, in the changing, unpredictable relationships and situations for the captive Briseis, but Barker keeps her Briseis and Achilles alive in time, not in timeless myth. Barker doesn’t want her readers dazzled or deluded, in the position of the Trojans when Patroclus wears Achilles’s armor into battle ... Barker brilliantly sets against Homer’s list of warriors and the glossary of wounds with which Achilles kills them a catalog of their mothers’ efforts to bear and rear them, the struggle to sustain life that also finishes in the dust with their sons’ bodies, without even the compensation of glory ... Barker’s novel has been called a 'feminist Iliad'—and, of course, it is, unmistakably; but it cannot be conveniently relegated, as sometimes happens, to a niche of fiction, a genre of retellings by women. It is not only about women’s experience, but about slavery too. And it is also about the nature of knowledge, an exploration of the ways we perceive, and refuse to perceive, reality.
Pat Barker’s brilliant new novelistic retelling of The Iliad puts the experience of women like Andromache at the heart of the story ... Barker’s novel has a very clear feminist message about the struggle for women to extricate themselves from male-dominated narratives. In the hands of a lesser writer, it could have felt preachy. The attempt to provide Briseis with a happy ending is thin, and sometimes the female characters’ legitimate outrage seems a bit predictable ... One wonders if any woman in archaic Greece, even a former queen, would have quite the self-assurance of Barker’s Briseis. But, of course, there is no way to be sure: no words from women in this period survive but Barker is surely right to paint them as thoughtful, diverse, rounded human beings, whose humanity hardly ever dawns on their captors, owners and husbands. This central historical insight feels entirely truthful ... This is an important, powerful, memorable book that invites us to look differently not only at The Iliad but at our own ways of telling stories about the past and the present, and at how anger and hatred play out in our societies ... Barker’s novel is an invitation to tell those forgotten stories, and to listen for voices silenced by history and power.
Barker’s novel... raises the stakes for all historical writing in that it reminds us to do as Abigail Adams urged her husband: 'Remember the ladies' ... The Silence of the Girls is a novel that allows those who were dismissed as girls—the women trapped in a celebrated historical war—to speak, to be heard, to bear witness. In doing so, Barker has once again written something surprising and eloquent that speaks to our times while describing those long gone.
Briseis is flawlessly drawn as Barker wisely avoids the pitfall so many authors stumble into headlong, namely, giving her an anachronistic modern feminist viewpoint. Instead, the terror of her experience of being treated as an object rather than a person speaks (shouts) for itself ... The army camp, the warrior mindset, the horrors of battle, the silence of the girls—Barker makes it all convincing and very powerful. Recommended on the highest order.
The great trick of The Silence of the Girls is that it fills in the borders of one character in literature while uncovering the vast gaps that persist in the rest of the Western canon ... Barker’s language is often coarse and colloquial, as if she’s trying to erase the notion that art can make war beautiful ... Barker also includes anachronisms that can be jarring ... If the moments sometimes clash awkwardly with the more classical sections of prose, they also force readers to compare the misogyny of ancient Greece with the misogyny of the present ... Reading The Silence of the Girls almost a year into the #MeToo moment means confronting a literary tradition that’s long pushed women’s voices into the margins of history ... Books like this one prove not just how absurd that sentiment is, but also how powerful the silent voices have been all along.
Occasionally, and briefly, Barker switches into third person. The reason for the switch remains, for this reader, unsatisfying and opaque. Nothing in particular, either narratively or structurally, seems to be accomplished by the change of voice. Indeed, both voices are, for a writer of Barker’s large gifts, curiously flat and banal ... I began to lose faith on the first page of the novel when Briseis describes the retreat of the Lyrnessus women and children, hastening from their homes to seek refuge in the citadel: 'Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house — although admittedly in my case the house was a palace — so to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday.' The jarring inauthenticity of this sentence is sadly characteristic of the novel as a whole ... Unfortunately, Barker’s voices are dissonant and unpersuasive. The girls, alas, remain silenced.
Amid the recent slew of rewritings of the great Greek myths and classics, Barker’s stands out for its forcefulness of purpose and earthy compassion ... If Achilles’ anger powers The Iliad, the anger of Briseis powers her through to her survival. 'The death of young men in battle is a tragedy,' she notes, 'but theirs is not the worst fate.' Barker puts a searing twist on The Iliad to show us what that 'worst fate' can be.
Barker turns the myth on its head, showing how the tale of love and courage that is one of the foundations of Western civilization is an inglorious, corpse-strewn story soaked in hubris and blood, one largely built on physical and sexual violence against women and children ... Silence is a brilliant, jarring tale, and one with many a disturbing echo for our own times.
'Vivid' doesn’t begin to get near the grisly intensity of how Barker revisits Homer’s epic through Briseis’s eyes as she’s held in a plague-ridden prison camp. For her, the story of war isn’t a chronicle of spear-thrusts and arrow-shots, but one of enslaved women gang-raped in sight of their children and put to work washing their captors’ battle-bloodied rags in pails of urine, using balms of goose fat and crushed herbs to salve the sting of rough nights with their owners ... Not everyone will take to Barker’s plain speaking ... Reading this gruesome, gripping novel feels like you’re being let in on The Iliad’s secret history. No swords-and-sorcery romp, it speaks (I don’t think accidentally) to the present, post-Weinstein moment of myth-busting about male power.
There have recently been a couple of books about Ancient Greek history written from a female point of view—Madeline Miller’s Circe, and now Barker’s The Silence of the Girls ... This is as much The Iliad from a female lens as it is a story reminding us of the patriarchal nature of all of history—it isn’t just written by the conquerers, it is written by men. But Barker is adamant that this must change.
...[a] tart retelling of the Iliad from the perspective of Achilles' concubine, Briseis ... In a world of men obsessed with their own pre-eminence, how much more powerful is Briseis's claim that she is just one of many ... The Silence of the Girls is cleanly, even beautifully done, but it also feels familiar. 'Reclaiming' women of classics is now a genre, one that no longer feel inherently rebellious ... Barker's retelling feels thinner than some. Perhaps that comes down to the sense that Barker is simply writing against Homer ... It's tempting to consider these feminist retellings mere reactions against the same old story about shields and armor, heroes and battles. But there's never been just one story.
In The Silence of the Girls, Briseis is the master of the narrative, telling her story in counterpoint to Achilles, becoming her own subject rather than his object. Her voice is wryly observant and wholly cognizant ... Barker’s retelling of some of the most famous events of the Iliad feels strangely relevant to today.
Barker writes 47 brisk chapters of smooth sentences; her dialogue, as usual, hums with intelligence. But unlike her World War I novels, the verisimilitude quickly thins. Her knowledge of antiquity is not nearly as assured as Madeline Miller’s in The Song of Achilles and Circe. Barker’s prose is awkwardly thick with Briticisms...And she mistakenly gives the Greeks a military field hospital, which was an innovation of the Romans.
Despite its strong narrative line and transportive scenes of ancient life, however, this novel lacks the lyrical cadences and magical intensity of Madeline Miller’s Circe, another recent revising of Greek mythology. The use of British contemporary slang in the dialogue is jarring, and detracts from the story’s intensity. Yet this remains a suspenseful and moving illumination of women’s fates in wartime.