From the Booker Prize-winning author of the Regeneration trilogy comes novel set in the midst of literature's most famous war. Pat Barker turns her attention to the timeless legend of The Iliad, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War.
... 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.