Troy has fallen. The Greeks have won their bitter war. They can return home as victors – all they need is a good wind to lift their sails. But the wind has vanished, the seas becalmed by vengeful gods, and so the warriors remain in limbo – camped in the shadow of the city they destroyed, kept company by the women they stole from it.
The women of Troy.
Pat Barker returns to the city of Troy and Greek myth in this sequel to the wonderful The Silence of the Girls to which I gave five stars back in December 2018 – and it was also interesting to see how the format of my blog and my reviews has changed since then!
Can Barker repeat her success with that previous novel? Can she recreate the brutality and shocking realism of hearing Briseis’ voice enslaved by Achilles? The delicate balance between mythology and history which was the hallmark of that novel?
In short, no… or perhaps, closer to the truth might be that she intended this novel to be something different to the first. The source material has changed from Homer to Euripides, from epic to tragic, from warfare to its aftermath and in particular that strange hiatus between the end of the Trojan War and the return home – and as almost every reader who picks this up, a return home which will be “difficult” to say the least for so many of these Greek heroes.
We continue with Briseis’ narration – albeit interspersed with the occasional third person point of view from some of the men in the camp – and her position has changed too: no longer a slave, she is married to Alcimus and pregnant with Achilles’ child whom everyone assumes to be his son, which affords her a position of (tenuous) security and even respect within the Myrmidon camp from which she tries to support, console and protect the Trojan women enslaved when Troy fell: characters we know from the myths like Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and of course Helen, but also lesser characters created by Barker (I think, correct me if I am wrong) like Maire and Amina. And it on these less mythic characters that Barker focuses.
The story does suffer a little from a lack of direction, as Briseis and the Trojan women and the Greek fighters languish in the war camp outside the devastated fallen city of Troy, waiting for the winds to change direction. This in itself did create a sinister atmosphere: the last time Agamemnon had been befouled by weather (or by Artemis) he had sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to secure favourable winds for Troy! Within this wait, Priam’s corpse becomes the focus for tension: the Trojans who loved their King deeply want him buried; the Greek’s and in particular Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son and Priam’s killer / executioner / murderer depending on your point of view, refuses and his rotting corpse lies on the beach where Amina and Briseis are greeted by
“the buzzing of flies, thousands of them, covering the body like a fuzz of black bristles. As my shadow fell across them, they rose up”
Unlike his son, Hector, there is no miraculous preservation, no nightly reconstruction, just simple rot. And that contrast again shifts this narrative away from the epic and mythic to the human – and is that not what the stories of Troy did for the classical world?
Hands seem potent images in this novel at it is the image of Priam’s hand “with the gold thumb ring he always wore… lying dishonoured on the filthy ground” that affects Briseis – the same hand that she recalled playing magic tricks with a silver coin for her when she was in Troy and upset as a child. Hands that can hold and caress and protect but also harm and be brutal. Many of the women in this novel carry the marks, bruises and welts inflicted on them by the Greek warriors by whom they have been enslaved. Briseis escapes this, but Helen and Cassandra and others carry them. Troy itself – in a simile that is picked up by the image of it’s King’s body (well played, Ms Barker!) – is a victim of the war with “black and broken towers, like the fingers of a half-buried hand pointing accusingly at the sky.
Troy and the events of its fall haunt the narrative too. It opens with a wonderful depiction from Pyrrhus point of view of the Greek soldiers inside the horse. The waiting, the fear, the discomfort – the sudden urge Pyrrhus has to relieve himself (“Oh my god, he needs a shit”) and the soldiers determination not to be the first to use the latrine buckets in the rear (“arse end”) of the horse. And Pyrrhus’ pursuit of Priam inside Troy, the bungling of his death, the desperation to live up to the his father Achilles’ reputation and the inevitability of his failure to do so were extraordinary. And the atrocities inside Troy – the deaths of the Trojan men and boys, the horror of the fate of any pregnant Trojan woman, for fear that they may be carrying a son who might lead reprisals, the murder of infants and babies.
All of this came to be embodied by Hecuba, wife of a murdered king, mother and grandmother to two generations of murdered children. Defeated but unbowed, taken by Odysseus as a slave but still with the demeanour and perspicacity of a Queen.
So in conclusion, I loved this book but it is different to the first and – with unborn babies and hidden Trojan newborns – does feel a little like it is bridging the gap within a series. Bridging it well, but lacking some of the drive and pacing that it perhaps needs. It does make me wonder where the next novel – and I am sure there must be a next – will take us. A re-imagining of the Odyssey will be tricky as Odysseus has left for Ithaca and Briseis didn’t. But Briseis and Alcimus are not key players in the post-Troy myths and could end up anywhere… I wonder whether we will be heading back to Greece to witness the death of Agamemnon. That is a bloody and emotional story I’d like to see in Barker’s hands!
What I Liked
- Hecuba who is lying “in her filthy rags on a slave’s bed, she’s still, in her own mind, a queen” – so much so that towards the end of the novel she summons Odysseus and he attends her!
- Barker’s imagery – that subtlety of the broken hands of both Troy and its King is delightful.
- The wonderful recreation of the world of Greece and Troy that is three thousand years old made as vivid and sharp as the world around us today.
- The plight of the silent and invisibile women: when mysterious hands try to bury Priam, the idea that it might have been a woman does not even enter the men’s heads. This is a novel that feels terribly pertinent in some ways in the light of Sarah Everard, the #metoo movement – and perhaps most currently the withdrawal from and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
- Cassandra – her fevered visions of the future that could be true prophecy or just the antics of a child seeking attention. She has, however, predicted for Agamemnon the outcome of his marriage to her.
- The knowingness of the author, shared with a reader familiar with the story of Troy. For example, there is the tiny comment about Odysseus when the wind finally changes and the storm ceases, that he was “the first to leave. He’d always been the one chafing at the bit; the one most desperate to get home”. We know how well that goes, Odysseus!
What Could Have Been Different
- A tauter narrative structure and drive.
- Slightly less of the deliberately crude and anachronistic language – soldiers talking to Odysseus, a King, about arses and shitting was a little jarring, and Pyrrhus’ recollection of the rape of Andromache as “like sticking your dick in a bag of greasy chicken bones”