The Women of Troy by Pat Barker - review by Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn

Sufferings of Helen

The Women of Troy


Hamish Hamilton 320pp £18.99

Once Hector was dead, there was no hope for the Trojans. In the closing scenes of Homer’s Iliad, the warrior’s widow, mother and sister-in-law pine over his battered corpse before it is consigned to the flames and envisage further miseries before them. ‘I do not think he will reach his teenage years,’ says Andromache of the baby Hector left behind. She and the other surviving women will be led away on Greek ships.

It fell to other poets to describe the fall of Troy and its aftermath. While Virgil dedicated the second book of the Aeneid to a virtuoso account of the Trojan horse gliding into the citadel and unleashing its terror, the now little-read Quintus Smyrnaeus captured the moment Achilles was struck fatally in the heel. Euripides was almost alone in making the fate of the Trojan women his central focus. Pat Barker follows the tragedian’s lead – only in her novel, a sequel to The Silence of the Girls, the women of the Greek camp are given equal prominence.

From the beginning, Barker has the reader questioning how much difference it actually made to a woman to be married to a man on the winning or the losing side of the war. The wives of the Trojans are gaunt, emaciated (‘a bag of bones’) and deeply haunted. Hecuba, formerly queen of Troy, sips peasants’ wine and swings from sorrow to fury. She, like the others, is now a slave. But many of the women who spent the war with the Greeks are also suffering. While their menfolk sit around boozing, leering and shooting arrows at Trojan portraits, they must find their own way forward.

Briseis became Achilles’s sex slave after he sacked her city, killed her family and selected her as his prize of honour. In Barker’s novel, she is pregnant with his baby, but has recently been married at his command to another Greek, Alcimus. He, like most of the men Briseis encounters, assumes that she feels nothing but pride in having conceived a child with ‘the fastest, strongest, bravest, most beautiful man of his generation’.

‘We women are peculiar creatures,’ Briseis reflects. ‘We tend not to love those who murder our families.’ An empty cradle rocking in the draught of her room reminds her of what is to come when she delivers what feels less like a baby than ‘Achilles himself, miniaturized, reduced to the size of a homunculus, but still identifiably Achilles; and fully armed’.

And then there is Helen. Formerly of Sparta, she resided with the Trojans during the war, but is now back with the Greeks. Her beauty, assumed but never detailed by Homer, continues to be viewed as a curse by the women around her. The ‘two pink spots on her cheeks’ and her ‘great big wobbly fat tits’ serve only to reinforce her reputation as a ‘whore’. Briseis alone sees past all this. She cannot help but like her. Revealing the complexity of her feelings for her own captor, Briseis compares the affable Helen to the recently deceased Achilles.

Barker’s novel has the quality of a short story. Time seems to stand still as the women await their passage out of the camp. The story, more character- than plot-driven, is told predominantly from the perspective of Briseis, who does not hold back in her descriptions of the violence inflicted on her own and other women’s bodies. She looks at Helen’s neck and knows what she has endured since returning to her husband’s bed. She herself experiences flashbacks of Agamemnon, ‘his sweating bulk on top of me’. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, is matter-of-fact: ‘Look, what happened to me happened to hundreds of women.’

The men, with few exceptions, emerge from Barker’s narrative as the antithesis of heroes. It is instructive that the opening chapter, centred on Achilles’s son Pyrrhus, is laden with imagery of shit: we are given descriptions of his redworm-ridden horse and his own desperation to empty his bowels while hiding in Odysseus’s wooden contraption, which soon begins ‘shitting men’ into Troy.

This is not simply another woman-led reinterpretation of a classical text. Barker stands apart as a writer, her prose precise, supple and exquisitely direct. Whether she is drawing on Homer or Sophocles (an important scene involving a forbidden burial reveals a close reading of Antigone), Barker is never slavish towards her predecessors. She confidently steps outside the ancient framework, writing of ‘hospital’ as if there were an ancient A & E, undoubtedly aware of the anachronism, and rendering the famous timeo Danaos et dona ferentes as ‘don’t trust the fucking Greeks’. There are shades of Mary Renault in her treatment of the more emotionally distant characters, especially Helen.

Although there is now a trend for feminist retellings, Barker’s novel feels timeless rather than timely. While the story is harrowing, it prompts less pity than anger in the reader, who recognises in the experience of the mythological characters what is only too real. This is a book that impassions. In Barker’s portraits of Hecuba, Briseis, Cassandra and the rest, we find resilience, even when there is little left to fight with.

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