Sunday 23 February 2020

The Silence of the Girls - Pat Barker (2018)

Rating: Admirable

The Silence of the Girls is the first novel for the library's book club I've had to read for a while, due to the meeting cycle being interrupted by a much needed library refurbishment. The novel recounts Homer's The Iliad (8th BC) from the point of view of Briseis, who is captured by the Greeks when they sack the Trojan city of Lyrnessus, which is situated close to Troy. Briseis, who is a minor character in The Iliad, becomes the prize of Achilles, allowing Barker to freely examine one of the most famous Greek literary characters from the perspective of an intelligent and cultured Bronze-age woman. I began the novel with great enthusiasm, which lasted about eighty pages until I felt the need to brush up on the story of The Iliad, which then unfortunately revealed the narrative arc of the novel, taking away some of my enthusiasm. Unfortunately this also coincided with the novel becoming increasingly dull, as Briseis' narrative world was confined to the Greek camp on the beach-head and the various tents housing either drunken and macho Greek warriors, the wounded or other female slaves bemoaning their lot in life.

Barker's thematic thrust involves examining the cost of war, all the untold suffering and the trauma, particularly that of female slaves such as Briseis; however much of this suffering is described in a first person (Briseis) matter-of-fact manner that is mostly devoid of tension, resulting in a narrative that is often flat and dull. For a novel that focuses on the trauma of dislocation and war, there is little psychological intensity, particularly when it comes to the female characters. Despite Barker giving voice to a mostly silent female character of The Iliad, ironically the male characters steal the show. Achilles and his childhood friend, Patroclus, both come across as far more complex and conflicted characters and because the narrative arc is essentially focused on what happens to them, Briseis frequently ends up being the voice that tells their stories. In contrast Helen of Troy only has a few brief scenes, however she comes across as a much more satisfying character than Briseis. Barker obviously has the skill to reveal her inner world in a compelling manner, it is a pity it didn't quite happen that way when it came to Briseis, otherwise The Silence of the Girls would have been a much more satisfying novel, particularly as it is a noble idea to subvert what is essentially a story about men and Gods putting their ego fueled stamp of the (ancient) world. The majority of the book-clubbers felt that, despite some redeeming qualities, the novel was a wasted opportunity, among many other grievances - apologies to the author, I hope you don't end up reading this review!


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