Originally published: May 2019 (first published Aug 2018)
Author: Pat Barker
Published by: Penguin
Length: 325 pages
Reading dates: 26-28 August 2019
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”,
This was chosen as our August book club read. We all make suggestions every month for our next read and this book appealed to us all, as we haven’t read any books based around mythology before.
The story is based around the characters featured in the ancient Greek poem the Iliad, which details the 10 year long siege on the city of Troy by the Greeks led by the fearsome Achilles, which started because of the kidnapping of Greek Queen Helen by the Trojans.
But this is a retelling, told from the viewpoint of the women living in the Greek soldier’s camp. Queen Briseis of Lyrnessus is the main narrator. The beginning of the book starts with the defeat of her city, by Achilles and the Greeks, the murder of her brothers and husband and the destruction of everything she knows. She and other women are captured and taken to the Greek solder’s camp and divided up among the men or put to work. Briseis, a queen, is considered a great prize so is given to Achilles as a bedslave and it is from here we hear a very different story of war.
We hear about the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus, life long friends since childhood. Compared to some of the other bed slaves, Briseis isn’t beaten and Patroclus especially is kind to her. We hear about a plague and the resulting feud between Achilles and Agamemnon and how Briseis becomes a pawn in a menacing game between the two warriors and their egos.
I loved this book! And I very almost didn’t read it! Book club night was fast approaching and I hadn’t even bought the book, much less started it – my last book had taken longer to read than I thought it would and to be honest, the blurb on the back cover didn’t excite me. I knew nothing about the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, beyond the fact that the Greeks used a big wooden horse to gain access to the city of Troy. It’s just never interested me.
But after speaking to a friend who thought I’d be able to read it quickly I got myself a copy and read it in just 3 days. I was drawn in straight away – the descriptions of war are brutal and Briseis’s voice is exactly right – you can tell she is just doing what she has to do to survive but her feelings are deadened after what she has seen and how she has been treated. The language is very modern which makes it more accessible.
Briseis hates Achilles for what he has done to her family and to her and their relationship is no way romanticised, There are lots of shocking moments – the descriptions of what they do to the women and the deaths during the fighting are gruesome.
It left me wanting more – I spent a lot of my reading time looking up the different characters, reading more around them so I had a better background understanding. I now want to read all the retellings of this story, especially Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles. Can you recommend any others? Or are there any good TV series or films I should watch?
Overall thoughts from book club were highly impressed and we scored it pretty highly. It got top marks from me and resulted in an interesting discussion, especially as some knew more about the background than others and were able to add details I didn’t know. The Silence of the Girls was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, but lost out to An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.
About the author:
Pat Barker was born in Thornaby-on-Tees in 1943. She was educated at the London School of Economics and has been a teacher of history and politics.
Her books include the highly acclaimed Regeneration trilogy Regeneration; The Eye in the Door, winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize; and The Ghost Road, winner of the Booker Prize; as well as seven other novels. She’s married and lives in Durham, England.