The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

The Silence of the Girls:

The greatest war story in literature, retold by our greatest living storyteller on war – in the voice of the forgotten woman who lived through it.

Queen Briseis has been stolen from her conquered homeland and given as a concubine to a foreign warrior. The warrior is Achilles: famed hero, loathed enemy, ruthless butcher, darkly troubled spirit. Briseis’s fate is now indivisibly entwined with his.

No one knows it yet, but there are just ten weeks to go until the Fall of Troy, the end of this long and bitter war. This is the start of The Iliad: the most famous war story ever told. The next ten weeks will be a story of male power, male ego, male violence. But what of the women? The thousands of female slaves in the soldiers’ camp – in the laundry, at the loom, laying out the dead? Briseis is one of their number – and she will be our witness to history.

Published by Penguin Books Australia – Penguin General UK

Released 30th August 2018

The Women of Troy:

Sequel to critically acclaimed bestseller The Silence of the Girls, an extraordinary retelling of one of our greatest classical myths from one of best writers of war fiction.

Troy has fallen and the Greek victors are primed to return home, loaded with spoils. All they need is a good wind to lift their sails.

But the wind does not come. The gods are offended – the body of Priam lies desecrated, unburied – and so the victors remain in uneasy limbo, camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed. The coalition that held them together begins to fray, as old feuds resurface and new suspicions fester.

Largely unnoticed by her squabbling captors, erstwhile queen Briseis remains in the Greek encampment. She forges alliances where she can – with young, rebellious Amina, with defiant, aged Hecuba, with Calchus, the disgraced priest – and she begins to see the path to revenge…

Published by Penguin Books Australia – Hamish Hamilton

Released 26th August 2021

Thoughts on Both:

These two novels are a victory for every person who was silenced by history, their story stolen from them and absorbed into the male narrative of war and conquest. The Silence of the Girls is the more powerful novel, it vibrates with brutality and is infused with fear; it is a deeply emotional story. The Women of Troy continues the story commendably, however, and this is just my impression, it didn’t offer quite the same level of intensity, but considered together, these are an excellent pair of novels. I read them rapidly and one after the other, unwilling to put them down. I would recommend reading The Silence of the Girls prior to The Women of Troy. There is key background information from The Silence of the Girls woven into the narrative of The Women of Troy, but this is very much a sequel, not a standalone, and to me, the emotional context was not there; you get that from The Silence of the Girls, plus, the whole mood of the Greek camp and their fractious relations is better understood if you’ve read The Silence of the Girls first. I am reviewing these two together as my reading of them, rapidly one after the other, makes it impossible for me to separate them. Also, I would really be repeating myself, to be honest, as the themes are the same as it is essentially the same story but just continued.

Greek mythology is very in vogue in fiction at the moment but there is nothing formulaic about Pat Barker’s work. She breathes life into these forgotten women of Troy, all of them, from the highest station to the lowest, all suddenly on the same level playing field as slaves to the Greek men. The fear that ruled their days can be felt in every scene but so too the rage, at losing everything and being at the mercy of the men who had murdered all the men in their families, including babies in the womb, desecrated homes and sacked all the Trojan cities. There were times when the women would recognise items being worn and used by the Greeks that came from their own homes. The obscene violation of this seemed to reflect the loss with so much impact, as Briseis notes, the Greeks were erasing a nation. Killing all of the men and boys, impregnating the women with Greek stock so that Trojans would no longer exist. Along this thread, one thing that stood out from The Women of Troy was how the Greeks did not rate the women as Trojans after Troy fell. They were merely the spoils of war and they didn’t consider for even a moment that the rage these women felt would spill over into acts of rebellion. The shock when it did was almost comical. This need to believe that a man must have been influencing them because women had no functioning brain, no ability to act upon their own will. The politics amongst the women themselves was intricate, driven by past resentments as well as former statuses and current placements. One thing they were all united over was their hatred of the Greeks and their need to hold on to their heritage as Trojans.

I loved the writing style Pat Barker used throughout these two novels. There was a dark comedic edge to the brutality, internal sarcasm and a scathing assessment of the Greeks from the perspective of the women. The language was contemporary but such is her skill as a writer that it worked so well within this ancient setting. Her portrayal of Achilles was intensely compelling; such a complex warrior, part human, part celestial. Even after death he was like a puppet master for the events that immediately followed the fall of Troy. He was dead all throughout The Women of Troy, but still very much a major player. Neither of these books are love stories – thank goodness, at last. There is nothing more distasteful to read than about women enslaved falling in love with their captors. Rest assured, there is none of that here. The relationship between Briseis and Achilles was complex and went beyond master and slave, but theirs was not a love story written in the stars and immortalised for all time. It went beyond that. This complexity was something I admired about the story. It would have been all too easy to just turn this into a love story and I appreciate Pat Barker resisting that and digging deeper to examine the intricacies of what can develop between a master and a slave, particularly when that slave is expected to lie with and serve the man who she watched slaughter her husband, father, and brothers. As far as narrators go, I loved Briseis and never once tired of her across both books, reading them back-to-back. She was formidable, smart, and honourable. A true heroine.

The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy is now my favourite ‘series’. I’m not sure if there is more to come, I’m going to say probably not as the ending to The Women of Troy read very much like a finale, but you never know. I highly recommend both novels; they are truly remarkable and inspiring works of fiction. Intensely emotional and thought provoking. They make you really consider history and all that has been written before about war and conquests, male victory, the ‘spoils’ of war, and female servility. There is always more than one side to any story, even the famous ones that have been handed down through time.

☕☕☕☕☕

10 thoughts on “The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

  1. Good review. I’ve read the first one but didn’t enjoy it as I did ‘the song of Achilles’. I like a little bit of romance or humour with my mythology and that’s why I also like Natalie Haynes.

    Jo

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I’ve yet to read The Song of Achilles, but I do have one of the 10th anniversary copies on pre-order. I haven’t read any Natalie Haynes. I do acknowledge that The Silence of the Girls is brutal and grim. But that appealed to me. Perhaps I am just that jaded right now!

      Like

  2. I love this review. I’ve read both books and agree with you on every point. Re Silence of the Girls, which I agree is the stronger of the two, the only thing I didn’t like is the title… a rather lame adaptation of Silence of the Lambs. Yes, I hope there will be a sequel, but doubt there will. I love stories of women who have been mythologised, half buried in men’s stories, bringing them out, letting us know them as full, embodied, powerful women in patriarchal systems. And I also really liked the way that Briesis–Achilles story wasn’t romanticised.

    Liked by 1 person

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