The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the Girls

by Pat Barker


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780525564102
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/27/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 48,490
Product dimensions: 5.14(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Pat Barker is the author of Union StreetBlow Your House DownLiza’s EnglandThe Man Who Wasn't There, the Regeneration trilogy (RegenerationThe Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, which won the Booker Prize), Another WorldBorder CrossingDouble Vision, and the Life Class trilogy (Life ClassToby's Room, and Noonday). She lives in Durham, England.


Durham, England

Date of Birth:

May 8, 1943

Place of Birth:

Thornaby-on-Tees, England


London School of Economics; Durham University

Read an Excerpt


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, speared through the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy. I noticed Ismene, who was four months pregnant with my husband’s child, pressing her hands hard into her stomach, trying to convince herself the pregnancy didn’t show.

In the past few days, I’d often seen her looking at me—​Ismene, who’d once been so careful never to meet my eyes—​and her expression had said, more clearly than any words: It’s your turn now. Let’s see how you like it. It hurt, that brash, unblinking stare. I came from a family where slaves were treated kindly and when my father gave me in marriage to Mynes, the king, I carried on the tradition in my own home. I’d been kind to Ismene—​or I thought I had, but perhaps no kindness was possible between owner and slave, only varying degrees of brutality? I looked across the room at Ismene and thought: Yes, you’re right. My turn now.

Nobody was talking of defeat, though we all expected it. Oh, except for one old woman, my husband’s ­great-­aunt, who insisted this falling back to the gate was a mere tactical ploy. Mynes was just playing them along, she said, leading them blindfolded into a trap. We were going to win, chase the marauding Greeks into the sea—​and I think perhaps some of the younger women believed her. But then that war cry came again, and again, each time closer, and we all knew who it was, though nobody said his name.

The air was heavy with the foreknowledge of what we would have to face. Mothers put their arms round girls who were growing up fast but not yet ripe for marriage. Girls as young as nine and ten would not be spared. Ritsa leant across to me. “Well, at least we’re not virgins.” She was grinning as she said it, revealing gaps in her teeth caused by long years of childbearing—​and no living child to show for it. I nodded and forced a smile, but said nothing.

I was worried about my ­mother‑­in‑­law, who’d chosen to stay behind in the palace rather than be carried to the citadel on a litter—​worried, and exasperated with myself for being worried, for if our situations had been reversed she would certainly not have cared about me. She’d been ill for a year with a disease that swelled her belly and stripped the flesh from her bones. Finally, I decided I had to go to her, at least check she had enough water and food. Ritsa would have gone with me—​she was already on her feet—​but I shook my head. “I won’t be gone a minute,” I said.

Outside, I took a deep breath. Even at that moment, with the world about to explode and cascade down around my ears, I felt the relief of breathing untainted air. Dusty and hot—​it scorched the back of my throat—​but still smelling fresh after the foetid atmosphere of the upstairs room. The quickest route to the palace was straight across the main square, but I could see arrows scattered in the dust and even as I watched one soared over the walls and stuck, quivering, in a pile of dirt. No, better not risk it. I ran down a side street so narrow the houses towering over me let in scarcely any light. Reaching the palace walls, I entered through a side gate that must have been left unlocked when the servants fled. Horses whickered from the stables on my right. I crossed the courtyard and ran quickly along a passage that led into the main hall.

It seemed strange to me, the huge, lofty room with Mynes’s throne at the far end. I’d first entered this room on my marriage day, carried from my father’s house on a litter, after dark, surrounded by men holding blazing torches. Mynes, with his mother, Queen Maire, by his side, had been waiting to greet me. His father had died the year before, he had no brothers and it was vital for him to get an heir. So he was being married, far younger than men expect to marry, though no doubt he’d already worked his way round the palace women and thrown in a few stable lads for relish along the way. What a disappointment I must have been when, finally, I climbed down from the litter and stood, trembling, as the maids removed my mantle and veils: a skinny little thing, all hair and eyes and scarcely a curve in sight. Poor Mynes. His idea of female beauty was a woman so fat if you slapped her backside in the morning she’d still be jiggling when you got back home for dinner. But he did his best, every night for months, toiling between my ­less-­than-­voluptuous thighs as willingly as a carthorse in the shafts, but when no pregnancy resulted he quickly became bored and reverted to his first love: a woman who worked in the kitchens and who, with a slave’s subtle mixture of fondness and aggression, had taken him into her bed when he was only twelve years old.

Even on that first day, I looked at Queen Maire and knew I had a fight on my hands. Only it was not just one fight, it was a whole bloody war. By the time I was eighteen I was the veteran of many long and bitter campaigns. Mynes seemed entirely unaware of the tension, but then in my experience men are curiously blind to aggression in women. They’re the warriors, with their helmets and armour, their swords and spears, and they don’t seem to see our battles—​or they prefer not to. Perhaps if they realized we’re not the gentle creatures they take us for their own peace of mind would be disturbed?

If I’d had a baby—​a son—​everything would have changed, but at the end of a year I was still wearing my girdle defiantly tight until at last Maire, made desperate by her longing for a grandchild, pointed at my slim waist and openly jeered. I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t become ill. She’d already selected a concubine from one of the ruling families; a girl who, although not lawfully married, would have become queen in all but name. But then, Maire’s own belly began to grow. She was still just young enough for there to be ripples of scandal. Whose is it? everybody was asking. She never left the palace except to pray at her husband’s tomb! But then she began to turn yellow and lose weight and kept to her own rooms most of the time. Without her to drive them, the negotiations over the ­sixteen-­year-­old concubine faltered and died. This was my opportunity, the first I’d had, and I seized it. Soon, all the palace officials who’d been loyal to her were answering to me. And the palace was no worse run than it had been when she was in power. More efficiently, if anything.

I stood in the centre of the hall, remembering these things and the palace that was normally so full of noise—​voices, clattering pans, running feet—​stretched out all around me as quiet as a tomb. Oh, I could still hear the clash of battle from outside the city walls but, rather like the intermittent humming of a bee on a summer’s evening, the sound seemed merely to intensify the silence.

I’d have liked to stay there in the hall or, even better, go out into the inner courtyard and sit under my favourite tree, but I knew Ritsa would be worrying about me and so I went slowly up the stairs and along the main corridor to my ­mother‑­in‑­law’s room. The door creaked as I opened it. The room was in ­semi-­darkness; Maire kept the blinds closed, whether because the light hurt her eyes or because she wished to hide her changed appearance from the world, I didn’t know. She had been a very beautiful woman—​and I’d noticed a few weeks before that the precious bronze mirror that had formed part of her dowry was nowhere to be seen.

A movement on the bed. A pale face turned towards me in the gloom.

“Who is it?”


Immediately, the face turned away. That wasn’t the name she’d been hoping for. She’d become rather fond of Ismene, who was supposed to be carrying Mynes’s baby—​and probably was, though given the lives slaves lead it’s not always possible to know who a child’s father is. But in these last few desperate weeks and months that child had become Maire’s hope. Yes, Ismene was a slave, but slaves can be freed, and if the child were to be a boy . . .

I went further into the room. “Do you have everything you need?”

“Yes.” Not thinking about it, just wanting me to go.

“Enough water?”

She glanced at her bedside table. I went round the bed and picked up the jug, which was almost full. I poured her a large cup then went to refill the jug from a bowl of water in the corner furthest from the door. Warm, stale water with a film of dust on the top. I plunged the jug deep and took it across to the bed. Four sharp slits of light lay across the ­red-­and-­purple rug beneath my feet, bright enough to hurt my eyes, though the bed was in ­near-­darkness.

She was struggling to sit up. I held the cup to her lips and she drank greedily, her wasted throat jerking with every gulp. After a while, she raised her head and I thought she’d had enough, but she made a little mew of protest when I tried to take the cup away. When at last she’d finished, she wiped her mouth delicately on a corner of her veil. I could feel her resenting me because I’d witnessed her thirst, her helplessness.

I straightened the pillows behind her head. As she bent forward her spine was shockingly visible under the pallid skin. You lift spines like that out of cooked fish. I lowered her gently onto the pillows and she let out a sigh of contentment. I smoothed the sheets, every fold of linen releasing smells of old age, illness . . . Urine too. I was angry. I’d hated this woman so fiercely for so long—​and not without cause. I’d come into her house as a ­fourteen-­year-­old girl, a girl with no mother to guide her. She could’ve been kind to me and she wasn’t; she could’ve helped me find my feet and she didn’t. I had no reason to love her, but what made me angry at that moment was that in allowing herself to dwindle until she was nothing more than a heap of creased flesh and jutting bone, she’d left me with so very little to hate. Yes, I’d won, but it was a hollow victory—​and not just because Achilles was hammering on the gate.

“There is something you could do for me.” Her voice was high, clear and cold. “You see that chest?”

I could, though only just. An oblong of heavy, carved oak, squatting on its own shadow at the foot of the bed.

“I need you to get something.”

Raising the heavy lid, I released a fusty smell of feathers and stale herbs. “What am I looking for?”

“There’s a knife. No, not on the top—​underneath . . . Can you see it?”

I turned to look at her. She stared straight back at me, not blinking, not lowering her gaze.

The knife was tucked in between the third and fourth layer of bedclothes. I drew it from the sheath and the sharp blade winked wickedly up at me. This was far from being the small, ornamental knife I’d been expecting to find, the kind rich woman use to cut their meat. It was the length of a man’s ceremonial dagger and must surely have belonged to her husband. I carried it across to her and placed it in her hands. She looked down at it, fingering the encrusted jewels on the hilt. I wondered for a moment if she was going to ask me to kill her and how I would feel if she did, but no, she sighed and set the knife to one side.

Easing herself a little higher in the bed, she said, “Have you heard anything? Do you know what’s happening?”

“No. I know they’re close to the gates.” I could pity her then, an old woman – because illness had made her old – dreading to be told her son was dead. “If I do hear anything, of course I’ll let you know…”

She nodded, dismissing me. When I got to the door I paused with my hand on the latch and looked back, but she’d already turned away.

Reading Group Guide

1. Briseis’ attitude toward Achilles changes throughout the course of the novel. Did you always find yourself agreeing with her opinion of him? Why or why not?

2. What is most striking about the difference between how Achilles presents himself privately and publicly? In what ways do the two personas merge toward the end of the novel?

3. How did The Silence of the Girls impact your understanding of The Illiad? What did this book add to the story of the Trojan War as a whole?

4. There are many visceral and devastating depictions of war and its aftermath in Silence of the Girls. Which moment struck you as the most heartbreaking or poignant?

5. Honor, both familial and for your city, is a strong theme of The Illiad. How does this theme apply to The Silence of the Girls?

6. Throughout the course of the novel, we see Briseis through many traumatic experiences, including her fall from Queen to concubine. Were you ever surprised by her reactions to these experiences? How would you have reacted to these experiences?

7. The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of The Illiad from one of the minor character’s point of view. If Pat Barker were to write another retelling, whose point of view would you be most interested in reading? How, for instance, might Paris, Helen’s lover, tell his tale?

8. If The Silence of the Girls were written from the point of view of a male minor character, how would that change the story?

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The Silence of the Girls 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
gaele More than 1 year ago
Told in predominantly first person POV, we have the final weeks of detail on the battle for dominance of Troy from Briseis’ view. Former queen, taken by Achilles as a prize of war when he defeated her husband and brothers. Now a concubine, her awareness of the fact that she is not the hero of her own story, with no choice but to watch events unfold around her is clear {perhaps too clear – a fault of time elapsed from event to retell?} that gives an intriguing, and particularly easy to see the influence and moments from Homer’s original. With a few moments where Achilles’ perspective is presented, with an interesting presentation of his brutality while examining the perception of his heroism, a juxtaposition that many authors fail to handle as deftly. But the story is far more than just a retelling: Briseis is both politically adept and a keen observer of the world around her: no shrinking violet, she is watching, waiting and making choices that will best serve her for the future, should there be one. She manages to present her tale with musings that harken back to the lyricism and poetic feel /nature of Homer’s original, in fact I felt that much of the original’s rhythmic prose that added that sense of a classic, while present, also allowed the clear voice of Briseis as her story presents one of a person without a real dog in the fight, free to recount moments experienced from her unique perspective. Not simply a tale of ‘yet another woman in love with her captor’, the nuance and clear presentation of traits and characteristics often in direct contrast help to define and illustrate both Achilles and Patroclus, contrasting their moments of petulance, empathy and even jealousies adds another layer to the tale, allowing those interested in returning to the original a newer {and perhaps more connected} perspective and way to appreciate the tale, history and humanity within. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sensitivemuse More than 1 year ago
This is a retelling of The Iliad - no need to read it however a bit of the basics of it would help you understand this book more, just for background information. It can be a rather difficult read. Not to say it’s hard to understand, but more of the detailed subject matter. It’s shocking to read when these women are going through an era where war is prevalent, and the best outcome for them is to be a trophy, instead of a slave. (Although, those two terms are pretty much the same thing if you think about it) It’s scary, and eye opening at the same time. These women go through a lot of trauma and Briseis has it slightly better than the other women out there (which says a lot). They’re pretty much treated like cattle and nothing could be done with it. Unfortunately this is the norm during war. The relationship between Briseis and Achilles was interesting. Despite the conqueror and war trophy titles, it develops and evolves as Achilles goes though life changing events through the novel. You do however, have a heart for Patroclus. He seemed more human and his friendship with Briseis is what might have kept her going through all this time in the book. In a sense too, she also benefited from being with Achilles (albeit, not her choice) This is definitely word a read through if you’re interested in Greek Mythology and retellings this is worth the read, despite the slow but steady pace. The retelling of the Iliad from Briseis’ point of view is a good one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a long-time Pat Barker fan, and I worry that this latest gem isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Not only is it beautifully — and vividly — written, but to anyone who knows the Iliad or the general story of the fall of Troy, this look at the story from a very different perspective is truly enlightening. Much is being written and discussed these days about the me too movement, but this book brings to life the realities of powerlessness in ways that Go beyond anger and hit directly at the heart.
DeediReads More than 1 year ago
“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’.” Full disclosure: Books like this were made for me. I love feminist fiction, and I really love retellings — especially Greek mythology. Madeline Miller is my jam. This book is also my jam. I loved every page. The Silence of the Girls is a retelling of parts of the Illiad, the Trojan War, from the point of view of Briseis. She was Queen of Lyrnessus before Achilles et al sacked the city. Then she was given to Achilles to be his bed slave as a war prize. She also develops a friendship with Patroclus and many of the other women who were slaves. “Yes, I watched him. Every waking minute — and there weren’t many minutes I allowed myself to sleep in his presence. It’s strange, but just then, when I said ‘I watched him’ I very nearly added ‘like a hawk,’ because that’s what people say, isn’t it? That’s how you describe an intent, unblinking stare. But it was nothing like that. Achilles was the hawk. I was his slave to do what he liked with; I was completely in his power. If he’d woken up one morning and decided to beat me to death, nobody would have intervened. Oh, I watched him all right, I watched him like a mouse.” Part I of the book takes us through the events from the sacking of Lyrnessus until Agamemnon decides that he wants to take Briseis from Achilles. (The last sentence of Part I gave me literal chills.) Then Part II takes us from that point until Achilles’ death, with special attention paid to the time after Patroclus died. Throughout, the prose whacks you in the stomach again and again, giving voice and character and depth to the women of the Illiad. The women who either chose death before their cities were sacked or suffered afterward. Those women were there, in the story, but how often do we allow ourselves to pause and think about what they suffered? Briseis’ narration is really powerful. She holds no punches; her description is told with the same cold and detached feeling that she experiences daily. It’s chilling. This was also a really interesting look at Achilles. He’s cold and distant and ruthless but also somewhat childish and also hungry for warmth and affection. It makes you not quite like him, but also not quite dislike him either. All in all, this book was gripping and begs to be pondered. Read it. “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.”
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm a sucker for period pieces so naturally I dove in. This book is a an eye opening thought provoker I never knew I needed to read. Heartbreaking and touching, it'll make you rethink history and have you questioning every classic tale you've read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A refreshing take on the Trojan War
PaulAllard More than 1 year ago
Mythological drama revisited - nicely done and original The retelling of parts of the Trojan War seen through the eyes of Briseis is interesting and an original concept. The upshot is the lowly and pathetic role of women in ancient times as breeders and chattel. Achilles features greatly in this novel and, like most men, does not come out of it with much grace. For someone who already knew the story from an early love of Greek mythology, there are few surprises in the main story: it’s just the woman’s take on the tale which make the book different and interesting. Enjoyable and worth a look if that’s your bag.
joseph_spucklerJS More than 1 year ago
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker is a retelling of the Illiad through the eyes of Briseis. 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. She is the author of several historical fiction novels. Briseis was the mythical queen of Lyrnessus in Asian Minon at the time of the Trojan War. She finds herself trapped in the city walls as the Greeks lay siege to the city. She watches as Achilles kills her husband and sons. Briseis is taken prisoner and given to Achilles as a prize by Agamemnon. Captive life is not pleasant as Achilles bedmate, but she does have freedom of movement in the camp. She becomes key in the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon. The story told from the Briseis perspective a queen who is suddenly a slave is exciting in itself since slaves and women never had a voice in that period (mythical or not). At some point, however, it does seem like women's literature especially when Briseis talks with the other women in the camp. The language appears too modern in places, but I suppose there were the same words in Greek as modern English. This is also offset by with battles and bubonic plague.  There is a healthy mix of perspective, mythology, and storytelling in this novel. An excellent telling of a classic story that does adds to the original instead of harming the original.  A well-done adaptation.