Book Review: The Silence of the Girls

Female focused retelling man’s story

Silence becomes a woman.

The second of my blogs from the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, staying with the theme of retellings of ancient stories with The Silence of the Girls. Again the tale of one lone women usually sidelines in the tales about Achilles, Odysseus and their band of brothers who fought the Trojan war. One of the best things about both of these books was how the lead female characters were about to step out of the shadows of the legends of the literary canon and have their stories told (yes I know these aren’t real women but still …). This is what the Women’s Prize for Fiction is all about, giving a platform for different women’s stories and I am here for it!

The novel tells the story of Briseis, a queen captured in Lyrnessus when Achilles storms the city in his battle to rescue the much more famous (or perhaps infamous) Helen following her kidnapping. Briseis finds herself condemned to slavery in Achilles’ bed and later she becomes a pawn in the power struggle between him and Agamemnon…

Through her story we see a very different side to the tale of the war told in the Iliad and see the price that is paid by the women left behind.

Having read Circe I was super excited to start The Silence of the Girls. Both novels feel really relevant and modern, tackling the big issue of women’s place in society and how ingrained beliefs mean that we are still very far from achieving equality. Of course this is all the more marked in ancient Greece where women must face physical and sexual violence, where they are less than second class citizens but rather commodities.

The Silence of the Girls feels very real, no myth and magic here, just the harsh realities of war and slavery. Her tone at times seems disengaged and you sense that as the reader you are only seeing a snapshot of her daily existence. I’ll admit that at points during the novel I felt the description of Briseis’ life got just a little repetitive in its druggery, but perhaps that was the point?

This realness brings the fate of the women who are captured with Briseis into sharp focus, as does her lack of engagement, and I wondered how many women out there are experiencing much the same kind of existence as a result of conflict.

A dark thought I know.

And whilst the book can be dark there are some real moments of humour, especially when the women come together and talk. The way Briseis talks about her wading in the sea was particularly enjoyable, although the shadow of Achilles is never far away!

The main criticism I could give of the book is that at times the use of modern language, particularly in dialogue, did jar a little bit. Some of the language used felt like it would be more at home in Pat Barker’s other novels which tend to be set in the modern era (namely the world wars). This is just my personal opinion though and it may not bother you.

Final thought: A really enjoyable read, well written and engaging. Perhaps there could have been a little more development of Briseis’ character and the language could have been a little less modern. I’d like the scope to have been a bit wider, to find out more of her world but then I suppose that demonstrates how limited the world was for women of that time.

Have you read The Silence of the Girls? What did you think? Am I being a bit harsh in my judgement?

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