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The Silence of the Girls
Cover of The Silence of the Girls
The Silence of the Girls
A Novel
Borrow Borrow
A Washington Post Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: NPR, The Economist, Financial Times

Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
Finalist for the Women's Prize for Fiction
Here is the story of the Iliad as we've never heard it before: in the words of Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. Given only a few words in Homer's epic and largely erased by history, she is nonetheless a pivotal figure in the Trojan War. In these pages she comes fully to life: wry, watchful, forging connections among her fellow female prisoners even as she is caught between Greece's two most powerful warriors. Her story pulls back the veil on the thousands of women who lived behind the scenes of the Greek army camp—concubines, nurses, prostitutes, the women who lay out the dead—as gods and mortals spar, and as a legendary war hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion. Brilliantly written, filled with moments of terror and beauty, The Silence of the Girls gives voice to an extraordinary woman—and makes an ancient story new again.
A Washington Post Notable Book
One of the Best Books of the Year: NPR, The Economist, Financial Times

Shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award
Finalist for the Women's Prize for Fiction
Here is the story of the Iliad as we've never heard it before: in the words of Briseis, Trojan queen and captive of Achilles. Given only a few words in Homer's epic and largely erased by history, she is nonetheless a pivotal figure in the Trojan War. In these pages she comes fully to life: wry, watchful, forging connections among her fellow female prisoners even as she is caught between Greece's two most powerful warriors. Her story pulls back the veil on the thousands of women who lived behind the scenes of the Greek army camp—concubines, nurses, prostitutes, the women who lay out the dead—as gods and mortals spar, and as a legendary war hurtles toward its inevitable conclusion. Brilliantly written, filled with moments of terror and beauty, The Silence of the Girls gives voice to an extraordinary woman—and makes an ancient story new again.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 1

    Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles . . . How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him "the butcher."

    ­Swift-­footed Achilles. Now there's an interesting one. More than anything else, more than brilliance, more than greatness, his speed defined him. There's a story that he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: "You can't kill me, I'm immortal." "Ah, yes," Achilles replied. "But we both know if you weren't immortal, you'd be dead."

    Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.

    ——————

    I heard him before I saw him: his battle cry ringing round the walls of Lyrnessus.

    We women—​children too, of course—​had been told to go to the citadel, taking a change of clothes and as much food and drink as we could carry. Like all respectable married women, I rarely left my house—​though admittedly in my case the house was a palace—​so to be walking down the street in broad daylight felt like a holiday. Almost. Under the laughter and cheering and shouted jokes, I think we were all afraid. I know I was. We all knew the men were being pushed back—​the fighting that had once been on the beach and around the harbour was now directly under the gates. We could hear shouts, cries, the clash of swords on shields—​and we knew what awaited us if the city fell. And yet the danger didn't feel real—​not to me at any rate, and I doubt if the others were any closer to grasping it. How was it possible for these high walls that had protected us all our lives to fall?

    Down all the narrow lanes of the city, small groups of women carrying babies or holding children by the hand were converging on the main square. Fierce sunlight, a scouring wind and the citadel's black shadow reaching out to take us in. Blinded for a moment, I stumbled, moving from bright light into the dark. The common women and slaves were herded together into the basement while members of royal and aristocratic families occupied the top floor. All the way up the twisting staircase we went, barely able to get a foothold on the narrow steps, round and round and round until at last we came out, abruptly, into a big, bare room. Arrows of light from the slit windows lay at intervals across the floor, leaving the corners of the room in shadow. Slowly, we looked around, selecting places to sit and spread our belongings and start trying to create some semblance of a home.

    At first, it felt cool but then, as the sun rose higher, it became hot and stuffy. Airless. Within a few hours, the smells of sweaty bodies, of milk, ­baby-­shit and menstrual blood, had become almost unbearable. Babies and toddlers grew fretful in the heat. Mothers laid the youngest children on sheets and fanned them while their older ­brothers and sisters ran around, overexcited, not really under­standing what was going on. A couple of boys—​ten or eleven years old, too young to fight—​occupied the top of the stairs and pretended to drive back the invaders. The women kept looking at each other, ­dry-­mouthed, not talking much, as outside the shouts and cries grew louder and a great hammering on the gates began. Again, and again, that battle cry rang out, as inhuman as the howling of a wolf. For once, women with sons envied those with daughters, because girls would be allowed to live. Boys, if anywhere near fighting age, were routinely slaughtered. Even pregnant women were sometimes killed,...
About the Author-
  • Pat Barker is the author of Union Street, Blow Your House Down, Liza's England, The Man Who Wasn't There, the Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize), Another World, Border Crossing, Double Vision, and the Life Class trilogy (Life Class, Toby's Room, and Noonday). She lives in Durham, England.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    April 15, 2018

    Booker Prize-winning Barker, who set her celebrated "Regeneration" trilogy during World War I, here reaches back in time to the Trojan War, when women served mainly as slaves or prostitutes or laid out the dead. At the heart of the narrative is not the battle between Greeks and Trojans but between Achilles and Agamemnon over Briseis, once queen of a kingdom neighboring Troy and now Achilles's concubine after he murdered her husband and brothers.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 9, 2018
    Barker, author of the Booker-winning The Ghost Road, speculates about the fate of the women taken captive during the Trojan War, as related in Homer’s Iliad. Briseis, queen of the small country of Lyrnessus, was captured by the Greek forces and awarded to Achilles, fated to serve him as slave and concubine. Through her eyes readers see the horror of war: the sea of blood and corpses, the looting, and the drunken aftermath of battle. When Agamemnon demands that Briseis be handed over to him, Achilles reacts with rage and refuses to fight, and when his foster brother and lover Patrocles is killed, having gone into battle in Achilles’s stead, Briseis becomes the unwitting catalyst of a turning point in the war. In Barker’s hands, the conflict takes on a new dimension, with revisionist portraits of Achilles (“we called him the butcher”) and Patroclus (he had “taken his mother’s place” in Achilles’s heart). Despite its strong narrative line and transportive scenes of ancient life, however, this novel lacks the lyrical cadences and magical intensity of Madeline Miller’s Circe, another recent revising of Greek mythology. The use of British contemporary slang in the dialogue is jarring, and detracts from the story’s intensity. Yet this remains a suspenseful and moving illumination of women’s fates in wartime.

  • Kirkus

    July 15, 2018
    An accomplished hand at historical fiction respins the final weeks of the Trojan War.For her 14th novel, Booker Prize-winning Barker plucks her direction from the first line of the Iliad: "Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles...." The archetypal Greek warrior's battle cries ring throughout these pages, beginning on the first. The novel opens as Achilles and his soldiers sack Lyrnessus, closing in on the women and children hiding in the citadel. Narrating their terrifying approach is Briseis, the local queen who sees her husband and brothers slaughtered below. She makes a fateful choice not to follow her cousin over the parapet to her death. She becomes instead Achilles' war trophy. Briseis calls herself "a disappointment...a skinny little thing, all hair and eyes and scarcely a curve in sight." But in the Greek military encampment on the outskirts of Troy, she stirs much lust, including in the commander Agamemnon. So far, so faithful to Homer. Barker's innovation rests in the female perspective, something she wove masterfully into her Regeneration and Life Class trilogies about World War I. Here she gives Briseis a wry voice and a watchful nature; she likens herself as a mouse to Achilles' hawk. Even as the men boast and drink and fight their way toward immortality, the camp women live outwardly by Barker's title. Their lives depend on knowing their place: "Men carve meaning into women's faces; messages addressed to other men." Barker writes 47 brisk chapters of smooth sentences; her dialogue, as usual, hums with intelligence. But unlike her World War I novels, the verisimilitude quickly thins. Her knowledge of antiquity is not nearly as assured as Madeline Miller's in The Song of Achilles and Circe. Barker's prose is awkwardly thick with Briticisms--breasts are "wrinkled dugs" or "knockers." And she mistakenly gives the Greeks a military field hospital, which was an innovation of the Romans.A depiction of Achilles' endless grief for Patroclus becomes itself nearly endless.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from July 1, 2018
    Queen Briseis and the women of Lyrnessus watch helplessly from the citadel as Achilles destroys the city, slaughtering their husbands, fathers, sons. When Briseis is made Achilles' slave as a prize of war, the one comfort in this horrifying new existence is Patroclus, Achilles' comrade and friend. When Agamemnon attempts to claim Briseis as his own, it changes the tide of the Trojan War. In graceful prose, Man Booker Prize winner Barker (Noonday, 2016), renowned for her historical fiction trilogies, offers a compelling take on the events of The Iliad, allowing Briseis a first-person perspective, while players such as Patroclus and Achilles are examined in illuminating third-person narration. Briseis is flawlessly drawn as Barker wisely avoids the pitfall so many authors stumble into headlong, namely, giving her an anachronistic modern feminist viewpoint. Instead, the terror of her experience of being treated as an object rather than a person speaks (shouts) for itself. Patroclus tells her things will change, and if they don't, to make them, to which Briseis, utterly powerless, replies, Spoken like a man. The army camp, the warrior mindset, the horrors of battle, the silence of the girls?Barker makes it all convincing and very powerful. Recommended on the highest order.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2018, American Library Association.)

  • The Economist "Almost Homeric in its brilliance... Refreshingly modern... Ms Barker [switches] nimbly between the daily drudgery of the camp and the horrors of conflict... Venerable scenes and mythic names magically become new... Domestic details are piercingly described, bringing the squalor of the camp to life... A masterful and moving novel."
  • Annalissa Quinn, NPR "Beautifully done."
  • Bethanne Patrick, Washington Post "Well-written as anything Barker has done before...The Silence of the Girls is a novel that allows those who were dismissed as girls--the women trapped in a celebrated historical war--to speak, to be heard, to bear witness. In doing so, Barker has once again written something surprising and eloquent that speaks to our times while describing those long gone."
  • Kate Atkinson, New York Times Book Review "A very good, very raw rendition of the Trojan War from the point of view of the women."
  • Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey "Brilliant, beautifully written... Both lyrical and brutal, Barker's novel is not to savor delicately."
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