Most books I’ve read about war focus on the glory of battle or the heroism of soldiers or the back stage political intrigues or the close fraternal bonds that form among troops fighting alongside one another. THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS (2018) is a completely different take. Because this time, the author shows war from the perspective of women witnessing the carnage. And it’s a masterful accomplishment! Awarded five stars on Goodreads.
Pat Barker takes us deep into the mythic Trojan War, nine years into ten years of battles. Here are all the characters we have all heard about – King Agamemnon, the half-human half-god warrior Achilles, the love triangle of Helen–Menelaus–Paris, King Priam, Hector, Odysseus, and Patroclus.
We do witness some of their brutal fighting. But instead of celebrating violence and death, in this book, it is all seen from the perspective of Briseis, a captured Queen-turned-slave. She — and nearly ALL the other women — see only the absurdity of war. For them it’s about endless violence, petty and meaningless competition among warriors, and continual shifts in who appears as victor.
Because in all wars, Barker shows us ALL women are powerless, and once conquered, become just one more commodity to be used by men. Simply part of the loot gathered by conquerors. No matter what rank, power, or privilege these women had before — they all become slaves to be raped by victors, forced to tend the wounded and dead, and required to prepare meals and serve their masters. They are routinely abused, traded and passed around with less care than soldiers show their dogs, horses, or armor. Women who watched soldiers slaughter their loved ones are then forced into those same murderers’ beds, even having to bear their children. It’s quite a bleak picture of the lives of women.
There is however one positive aspect. Probably NOT surprising to any woman reading this review. And that is the strong bonds that form among women. Whether they are Greek, or Trojans, or from some other conquered people — the work they do is the same, their value minimal, and their bodies virtually interchangeable. So, they wind up supporting one another, regardless of origin or class.
Barker’s writing is sparse and tight. But her story is so compelling, even if you remember your myths and can anticipate what will happen.
I promise you won’t be able to finish this book and not think of all warfare differently in the future.
More about award-winning British novelist, Pat Barker.
You may be interested in my review of another Pat Barker book, REGENERATION, the first of her three-novel series on World War I.
You may also be interested in a blog post I wrote last fall about Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo, which references the treatment women often receive by conquering armies.