I devoured Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls just after Christmas, and was pleased to find that the sequel, The Women of Troy, was also available. And so what better way to start my Cannonball read this year (my first ever), than by a review of this fantastic book?
You don’t need to have read Silence of the Girls (though you should, because it’s excellent) because Barker reiterates the important stuff which went down in that book which has its impact on this one, mainly Priam’s visit to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son, Hector, and its aftermath. You don’t even need to know much about the Iliad, actually, to enjoy these two books, since Barker re-tells the story in such an interesting way. Like the first book, I read this over two days, gulping down the plot, prose, and vivid characters. Re-tellings of Greek myth aren’t exactly rare, and ones in which the women characters of these very masculine stories are centred aren’t new, either – but this is much more enjoyable than, say, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad.
The Women of Troy takes up the story a couple of months after Achilles’ death, and starts the novel immediately with a fantastic description of the Greek men inside the wooden horse, waiting to see if their stratagem has worked, and then goes on in the strange aftermath of the victory during which the Greeks are unable to leave Troy due to the ceaseless unfavourable winds. Briseis, once a queen and then Achilles’ slave, and now pregnant with Achilles’ child and married (with the change in status that has brought her) to Alcimus, one of the Myrmidons, is the main narrator, as in the previous novel. Parts of the book are also seen from the perspective of young Pyrrhus, Achilles’s son, struggling with the legacy of the staggeringly famous father whom he never saw, and to whom everyone compares him. Achilles does hang over this book, like a ghost at the feast, and his importance to the plot, even though dead, is felt by the protagonists. (Incidentally, the first book managed to make me actually like Achilles, which must be a first)
These two novels take unknown and virtually ignored characters from the Iliad – the women of Troy – and give them voices and identities. Briseis, Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra – even Helen – come across as real people, and Barker never skates over the fear and hatred nearly all these women feel for the Greeks, the violence, and threat of violence, they face, as well as their adaptability under awful circumstances. Briseis, telling us the story at a remove, is a compelling protagonist: she’s such a pragmatist, a survivor, determined that the other women, for whom she feels responsible, should also survive – even the ones, like Amina, who cling to pride before safety. I like the way Barker treats the religious beliefs of Greeks and Trojans as entirely natural, and the customs, like funeral games, are stated in a matter-of-fact manner, not overly explained. Briseis also alludes to the fact that a lot of these women were already slaves – the dancer, Helle, for example – and for whom the Greeks are merely the latest owners, and not always the most vile. There are moments of sympathy, of joy, of laughter in amongst the slavery and fear, and Briseis knows the importance of celebrating these things, of hope in the darkness.