22nd April, 2019
Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (Doubleday Books)
I'd been looking forward so much to this book but, oh my, did it turn out to be a disappointment.
The Silence of the Girls tells (or is supposed to tell - see my later comments) the story of Briseis, once queen of one of Troy's neighbouring kingdoms and now slave and concubine to Achilles. Stuck in the Greek camp, Briseis cannot do much else but wait for the war's outcome while trying to come to terms with her now radically different life. Eventually she finds herself caught between hot-headed Achilles and brutal Agamemnon who demands her for himself.
What the book blurbs and cover text promised was essentially a retelling of the Iliad from a female perspective, and this is what got me interested: I was longing for a woman's point of view on the horrors of war and female opinions on the conquered women's new circumstances. The novel purports to be a feminist retelling of an originally very male-centred text, but this is definitely not what it is.
True, we do have a female narrator but (and this is a BUT in screaming capital letters) this narrator has no character depth whatsoever! Yes, she is but one among thousands of women behind the scenes in the Troyan war but what I wanted was her thoughts, her motivations, her feelings and emotions, her - yes! - identity struggles. I mean, she was dragged away from her home, saw her husband and brothers being killed, witnessed everything being burned down. This does something to a person and I was waiting for rebellious thoughts, plans for revenge or... something. However, while we obviously do have a female perspective here, Briseis' observations are mainly concerned with how muscular Achilles is, how fatherly Patroclus seems to be and how jovially the men interact with each other despite all the tensions in the camp. (Don't even get me started on the language used for this! "Cheers, mates!" - Really???)
And yes, I do get that of course it may be somewhat difficult to rewrite a very male story set in a time when women's lives were very much determined by the men around them from a woman's perspective. I understand that women back then didn't have much of a say in matters, especially not when they were slaves. However, if you're claiming to do just that than you need to deliver. Simple as that. And it has successfully been done before. Just look at Atwood's Penelopiad, for example.
I think this is one of these books that divides readers. I've seen quite a lot of raving reviews that celebrate the "nuanced, complex portraits of characters from Briseis' perspective". But this is exactly my problem with this book!! Barker was obviously so busy with having Briseis study other characters that she completely forgot to give her a character of her own. For a book that says that it's going to tell the story of a woman, it is an awful lot about a man's (Achilles') mummy issues, his flaring temper and his attractive physique.
The ending then is particularly disappointing, especially seen in the light of what I said above. It seems like the author eventually realised that she had focused a lot more on the men in her novel, and so the book ends with Achilles' death and Briseis saying that now her life can begin. Yes, she has to reinvent herself. Yes, it has all been difficult. But wasn't this supposed to be HER story in the first place? So after 300 pages of a book claiming to be about Briseis and actually being about others, we are told that NOW her story will follow? This is simply not okay, and almost made me throw the book at the wall (and it takes A LOT for me to feel like that as my books are precious to me!). So no, just "No!" to The Silence of the Girls.
Rating: 0.5/5 stars
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