Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!





The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This retelling of the legend of the Iliad is remarkable. Told largely from the perspective of Briseis, a minor character in the traditional narrative, this version recounts a woman’s perspective on war and its nearly unspeakable violence. And perhaps most importantly, Briseis tells us of her feelings about being used as a sexual object, a prize given first to Achilles, then to Agamemnon and finally to Alcemus, for destroying her hometown.

“The Silence of the Girls” succeeds through its character development, narrative movement, and its accumulation of details through its language. In third person, we hear that Thetis “recoiled at slime mold of human copulation and birth…[and the] little sea anemone mouth clamped to her nipple sucking … binding her more closely to the land.” And we hear Briseis’s voice, consistently poetic, “It was still dark, though a nail-paring of moon gave just enough light for me to see the huts, hundreds of them it seemed, stretching away into the distance.”

In creating her characters, Barker had the problem of imagining how they would sound in English (assuming that they were actually speaking in ancient Greek or in dactylic hexameter); in places her characters say “You all right mate?” … “course he bloody won’t”… “he’d have been good at all the tedious stuff, court cases, all that…” 

She is not always consistent, but her choices are more effective than not.

Part One of the novel tells mostly of Briseis and her new relationship to Achillles. She is alone, having helplessly watched Achilles, who had, that day, killed 60 men, slaying her husband and two of her brothers, Achilles’s foot on her brother’s neck as Achilles pulls out his sword.  She becomes immersed in the world of Achilles, Patroclus, Achilles’s confidant and probable lover (or so the novel suggests), and Achilles’s haunting longing for his mother, the sea goddess Thetis. As the spoils of battles won, Briseis is eventually “promoted,” given temporarily to Agamemnon. As she is carried away, Achilles cries. But she does not, and for years to come she remains proud of her stoicism.

Part Two alternates between third person and Briseis’s first person narrative of the continuing war.  It details Briseis’s life and her relationships with not only Achilles and Patroclus, but the other women slaves that move this section of the novel along.

Part Three recounts the demise and death of Achilles. Some say that it was his heal that made him vulnerable to the fatal arrow of Paris, but it is also suggested that his demise was inevitable no matter what the cause. Finally, Briseis, pregnant with Achilles’s child, is given to Alcemus, Achilles’s companion, who Briseis finds to be foolish. But picturing a life with Alcemus allows her to realize Achilles’s story has ended, and this is a time when “her own story can begin.”

Perhaps Barker is planning a sequel…?