The Women of Troy by Pat Barker (2021) Doubleday (2021) 304 pp
Back in 2018 I picked up Pat Barker’s latest novel, The Silence of the Girls, not suspecting that it would be one of my favorite books of the year. I loved how Barker, in her exquisite writing, filled with insight, told the story of the Iliad through the eyes of Briseis, a victim of the Trojan War who can at once be referred to as a minor character though she is the catalyst for the rage of Achilles and the dispute between him and Agamemnon that makes up the Iliad. The Silence of the Girls begins when Briseis, a Trojan queen herself, is captured by the soldiers of Achilles. I think about the book often.
I was, needless to say, ecstatic when I saw that Barker would be continuing the story in 2021 with The Women of Troy. The second I got my hands on a copy I dove in. These books are absolute treasures!
The Women of Troy refers directly to the great tragedy by Euripides, Troades, translated often as The Trojan Women or, even, The Women of Troy. Barker’s book (and Euripedes’ play) follow the the women of Troy soon after Troy is no more. It’s a book about grief that questions the blessing of survival.
Briseis is still the central character in Barker’s new book, though Barker also ventures out and follows the perspective of others. In fact, she begins the book in the belly of the great Trojan horse, where the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, is barely able to contain his eagerness to step into his father’s shoes — his father five months dead by this time — while also repressing his justified fear that he will fail.
Pyrrhus never knew his already legendary father. By the time Pyrrhus arrived at the camp, Achilles had been dead for ten days. A large part of this book is an exploration of Pyrrhus’s personality — cruel, selfish, haughty, self-doubting — and being heir to a godlike mortal. Pyrrhus seems to do the right thing — for heaven’s sake he is the one who finds and kills the Trojan King Priam — but he learns that a man’s myth is not made only of his great feats. Just look how Barker shows this, shortly after the young man has killed Priam:
This must be Priam’s robing room. Standing just inside the door, he listens, feeling the room shrink away from him, just as the women did. Everything’s silent, empty. But then, suddenly, he catches a movement in the far corner. Somebody’s hiding, over there in the shadows, he can just see the outline of a shape. A woman? No, from the glimpse he had, he’s almost sure it was a man. Pushing aside the rack of clothes, he edges forward — and then almost laughs aloud with joy, with relief, because there, straight ahead of him, stands Achilles. It can’t be anybody else: the glittering armor, the flowing hair — and it’s a sign, a sign that he’s been accepted at last. He walks confidently forward, peering into the dark, and sees Achilles coming towards him, sheathed in blood; everything red, from his plumed helmet to his sandaled feet. Hair red too, not orange, not carroty, no, red like blood or fire. At the last moment, face to face, he reaches out and his tacky fingers encounter something hard and cold.
Close now, close, almost close enough to kiss. “Father,” he says, as his breath clouds the mirror’s shining bronze. “Father.” And again, less confidently now: “Father?“
We soon find ourselves in the Greek camps sitting outside of the ruined city. The Trojan men and boys have been executed, and the women and girls are slaves to their captors. The women include Hecuba, Priam’s widow; Andromache, widowed since Achilles killed Hector some time before but now faced with the fresh grief of losing her baby son, who was cruelly thrown from the walls of Troy; Cassandra, who was recently raped by Ajax in the temple of Athena; and Helen of Troy herself, now back in the arms of her husband Menelaus. Since the Greeks have fulfilled their purpose — sack Troy and get Helen back — they are now anxious to return to their homes after ten years of war. However, the wind is not favorable. They cannot leave. Feeling like they are being cursed, they start looking around to figure out why, after being so blessed, they are now stuck in stinking camps next to a burned-out city. It doesn’t help that old disputes, put aside during the Trojan war, are resurfacing: “The coalition that had won the war was crumbling, each individual kingdom jockeying for position.”
Briseis has been captive in the camp for a long time when she finds herself reunited with these women she knew from before her own captivity. Right now they are together, having survived somehow, but understanding survival is not all it’s cracked up to be. Each has been claimed by some Greek warrior or other; they are prizes to be taken home. Cassandra has the fortune of going with Agamemnon, and thus we see the thread of another great and terrible sequence of Greek tragedy.
Briseis herself is still marked by the dead Achilles, as she carries his child in her womb.
So, what did I feel for this baby whose father had killed my husband and my brothers and burned my city down? I felt it wasn’t mine. At times, it seemed more like a parasitic infestation than a pregnancy, taking me over, using me for its own purposes — which were there purposes. Kill all the men and boys, impregnate the women — and the Trojans cease to exist. They weren’t intent on killing individual men; they meant to erase an entire people.
But, as with The Silence of the Girls, Barker is highlighting the lives that are almost invisible in those great shadows. It’s amazing how Barker weaves together such an intimate exploration and captivating story by, essentially, having Briseis wander from woman to woman as they survive each day in the company of their captors.
Even Helen gets an exceptionally nuanced portrait. Briseis recognizes that for all her beauty Helen is “just a moldy old bone for feral dogs to fight over.”
The Women of Troy, like its predecessor, is a painful yet powerful book. I love the old myths and legends, and these books continue to show why they are so rich. They also emphasize why they are still so sadly relevant.
On the day Polyxena died, I’d stood by Achilles’ burial mound and told myself that Achilles’ story had ended at his grave, and that my own story was about to begin. The truth? Achilles’ story never ends: wherever men fight and die, you’ll find Achilles. And as for me — my story and his were inextricably linked.
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