(This review first appeared on Writers Review at the end of February.)
One of the joys of Christmas is that, in my family, we’re very big on giving books for presents. One year this all went horribly wrong, when nearly every book one of us had loving selected had also been lovingly selected by someone else, so at least half of them had to be exchanged – but this year all was well, and this book was part of my haul. It follows on from Pat Barker’s first book about the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls, which I had not read before reading this one, though I have now.
It’s perfectly possible to read the second one without having read its predecessor – partly, I suppose, because the legend on which both books are based is very familiar: but also because Briseis, the narrator, naturally refers to the past as she takes up her story. I write books for children, and I think, if I was setting out to write one about the Trojan War and its aftermath, I would seek out a child character – who would need to have some agency: to be a hero in some measure – to make things better. But this retelling concerns war in all its horror and savagery: it’s a bleak tale with few shafts of light. There are certainly heroes, but they all have the capacity for horrifying violence and unthinking cruelty. And, incidentally, the only children in this narrative are girls – because when the Greeks finally conquered the Trojans by means of Odysseus’ wooden horse, they slaughtered the boys. They even, Briseis tells us, killed pregnant women in case the children in their wombs were boys.
Briseis had been a queen, captured when her city was laid waste by the Greeks almost as a sideshow to the main war against the Trojans. When we read retellings of the Greek legends, what we remember and enjoy are the exploits of the famous heroes. Pat Barker, through Briseis, lays bare the brutal treatment of the vanquished by the victors. The Trojan men are almost all slaughtered, while the women are raped and led into slavery. Briseis is relatively fortunate: as a high status captive, she is made available to be a trophy for one of the ‘heroes’. She is chosen by Achilles. In some books, this could have been the prelude to a romance, but there is no romance here. She is a commodity, no more. She only finally receives any consideration when she becomes pregnant with Achilles’ child, and is given in marriage to one of his friends: Achilles knows he is going to die, and knows also that his slave girl could easily be given after his death as a plaything for the ordinary soldiers. Because she bears his son, he doesn’t want that to happen – but only because of that, not because of any tender feelings towards Briseis herself.
The story takes place in the Greek camp on the shores of Troy. The Greeks want to go home, but the winds are against them, and they cannot leave. There is no beauty in this place: it’s windswept and desolate. “On the shoreline, there were stinking heaps of bladderwrack studded with dead creatures, thousands of them…The sea was murdering its children.” There is another dead creature on this beach. It is the body of Priam, the King of Troy and one of the few characters in this story who retains nobility – until, that is, he is dishonoured by his killer, Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, who drags Priam’s body behind his chariot every day round the walls of Troy, and refuses to allow it to be cremated. One of the Trojan women is determined to put a stop to this, and buries the body, to the fury of Pyrrhus. In a bewildered way he observes that there are only two Trojans in the camp, a priest called Calchas and one of Hector’s brothers, and that neither of these would have defied him in this way, so who can have defied him so flagrantly?
He is quite oblivious to the women: they are slaves, and they are women – they simply don’t count. They are invisible to him. But Briseis renders herself visible to us, because she tells us her story, and those of the other women in the camp: Helen, Cassandra, Andromache – but also the women of lower status, who nevertheless have their own stories, their own individual tragedies. She is courageous and she is kind: I look forward to reading the next book, which I suspect will bring her happiness in some degree.
It’s a wonderful book but a bleak read, harsh in many ways. The language reflects this. Pat Barker doesn’t let the reader off the hook, doesn’t put a gloss on things. This is what war does, she tells us. This is how it is.
How it still is, as we are seeing.
The Women of Troy is published by Hamish Hamilton