Review – The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls
by Pat Barker

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mythology

Length: 293 Pages

Release date: September 4, 2018

Synopsis:

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.

rating

five

Would you really have married the man who’d killed your brothers?

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t have been given a choice. But yes, probably. Yes. I was a slave, and a slave will do anything, anything at all, to stop being a thing and become a person again.

While it is accurate to say that The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of the Trojan War, that may give you a false impression of the novel. This is not a story about brutality on the battlefield. It’s not a story about the injustice of premature death. While these things make appearances in the narrative, The Silence of the Girls is about the slow, tragic, spiritual death that befalls the women who are held captive in times of war.

The story primarily focuses on Briseis, the unwilling concubine of Achilles. She has been taken as spoils of war and has no opportunity to grieve the deaths of her family before being thrown into Achilles’ bed. Her desperation and simmering resentment are somewhat reminiscent of Offred’s demeanor throughout The Handmaid’s Tale. 

I do what no man before me has ever done, I kiss the hands of the man who killed my son. 

Those words echoed round me, as I stood in the storage hut, surrounded on a ll sides by the wealth Achilles had plundered from burning cities. I thought: And I do what countless woman before me have been forced to do. I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers. 

As you might expect, The Silence of the Girls has a fiercely feminist bent to it. The sole aim of this novel seems to be to give voice to women who are largely forgotten in these stories. While it is easy in the abstract to see women like Briseis and know that their fates are tragic, this novel brings that tragedy into sharp focus on each page. Briseis’ day to day life is broken up with moments seemingly designed to break her down. While the nights spent with her captor may be the most sensational aspect of this, perhaps more heartbreaking is are the moments when reminders of her old life bleed into the present in the cruelest ways, such as when she says an enemy solider wearing a tunic she had made for her slaughtered father.

The overall tone of the writing feels very modern considering the subject matter. Depending on yours tastes, you may find it a bit anachronistic or you may simply find it immensely readable. Personally, I thought the style worked very well and allowed the story to flow naturally for a modern audience. And while it deals with tragedy and dehumanization, Briseis seems to find a sense of hope and light, though it may be tinged with anger. Her story will light a fire in your soul.

We’re going to survive–our songs, our stories. They’ll never be able to forget us. Decades after the last man who fought at Troy is dead, their sons will remember the songs their Trojan mothers sang to them. We’ll be in their dreams–and in their worst nightmares too.

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Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! Do you have a favorite modern novel that tells the story of an ancient myth? Do you prefer stories which stick closely to the original mythology or do you prefer when an author puts their own spin on the story? Let’s discuss in the comments!

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Review – Circe, by Madeline Miller

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Circe
by Madeline Miller

Genre: Fantasy, Mythology

Length: 394 Pages

Published April 2018

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Blurb via GoodReads:

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.

But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

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This book was fantastic; there’s something immensely satisfying about stories that take vilified, powerful female characters and take the time to humanize them. Circe is not just the one-dimensional sorceress who gets her jollies by turning sailors into pigs in this story, although there absolutely will be sailors turned into pigs. Madeline Miller lets us watch Circe grow from an outsider in her family of gods to a force to be reckoned with.

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The prose is just lovely; I listened to the audio book, and I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, although I did have to turn up the speed, as she read quite slowly. Miller’s writing style is lyrical and engaging.

One very strong aspect of this book is that it was able to strike a very delicate balance; it portrayed Circe sympathetically enough for the reader to forge a deep connection with her, but it did so without shying away too much from her flaws. The result is a nuanced protagonist who feels intimately real. Circe herself struggles with some of her flashes of cruelty. Late in the book, when a character is trying to soothe her misgivings about her past behavior, she says, “Do not try to take my regrets from me.”

This was one of my favorite moments of the book and really encapsulates a lot of the important themes. Many characters in this story behave in selfish and cruel ways. One thing that separates Circe from many of the other characters, gods and humans alike, is a capacity for regret when she has done wrong. Circe, unlike many of the other gods, seems to have a conscience. She is prone to lashing out because of fear or anger, but she has a desire to be better and a capacity for gentleness.

Anyone with a soft spot for mythology should give Circe chance, but you don’t need to be versed in these stories to like this book. While existing knowledge of the stories involved adds an element of enjoyment to the story, Miller does an excellent job of providing all the information you’ll need in order to follow the story without it ever feeling overly bogged down in the details of ancient mythology. The storytelling is very natural and immersive. I look forward to reading Song of Achilles, also by Miller, which I’ve somehow neglected on my Kindle for quite some time now.

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If you read and enjoyed Circe…

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You may want to check out Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis, a retelling of a classic Cupid and Psyche myth, told from the perspective of Orual, Psyche’s older sister. Like Circe, Orual is much reviled in her original myth. Both of these retellings humanize these woman and force us to think about their mythology in a new light. Till We Have Faces is a masterful piece of storytelling by Lewis, full of strong female characters, the mysteries of the gods, and sisterly love.

“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.” 

 

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