Friday 7 June 2019

Review by Lisa Smalley of “The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker

I discovered Pat Barker through her early novels Union Street and Blow Your House Down. Never before had I been confronted with such candid descriptions of the brutality one human being can enact upon another. The themes of trauma and survival in her narratives were compelling and, as such, made her the perfect author for the retelling of the Iliad from the female perspective. In the female tradition, Barker writes back and uncovers the story behind the celebrated men of Homer’s original poem: the girls.

Briseis, the queen of Lyrnessus, is our protagonist in this retelling of the Trojan War. She bears witness to the slaughter of her family at the hands of Achilles and his men, before the sack and destruction of the city. The women are then herded into the streets from their hiding place. Some are raped, children are murdered until finally they are taken to the Greek camp to be awarded as slaves and concubines to the same men who destroyed their homes and murdered their families.

True to her roots, Barker is meticulous in her description and paints with jarring detail the rising fear of the women hiding together while the Greeks invade their homes. As ‘the smells of sweaty bodies, of milk, baby shit and menstrual blood, … become almost unbearable,’ it is clear that the narrative is positioned at the heart of the female experience: their fears, their bodies and the atrocities they must endure.

Briseis is central to the events of the Iliad, yet only her beauty is mentioned fleetingly in the epic poem. Barker subverts Homer’s glorious war and shifts focus to its victims. Briseis’ numbness in the face of her trauma is beautifully expressed in the narrative, while the treatment and powerlessness of women is thoroughly explored with disturbing effect. 

It isn’t pretty, but stories of the horror and survival of war rarely are. The Silence of the Girls is a fitting tribute to the women who suffered and lived on in silent acceptance, as so many still do today.

About the Reviewer

Lisa Smalley is a copywriter, blogger, and mother of two lovely monsters. She is currently studying an MA in English Studies at the University of Leicester.

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