Pat Barker got me interested in Greek mythology. But, more importantly, she got me thinking about the women who were lost in the stories.
The Women of Troy, the second part of Pat Barker’s series, after The Silence of the Girls, is a re-telling of the Iliad but told from the point of view of Briseis; a former Princess of Lyrnessus, a city that fell under attack from Achilles in the Trojan War. In The Silence of the Girls we learn how she was given as a war prize to Achilles, after she had watched him kill her brothers and destroy her home. The Women of Troy picks up where the first book stops, after the death of Achilles, and the Greeks getting ready to climb in to the wooden horse that will take them into Troy.
A wooden box crammed full of men – it’ll go up like a funeral pyre larded with pig fat. And what will the Trojans do when their hear screams? Run and fetch buckets of water? Like bloody hell they will; they’ll stand around and laugh…
He’s halfway to his feet when a spear point appears between the heads of two men sitting opposite. He sees their faces blank with shock. Instantly, everybody starts shuffling deeper into the belly, as far away from the sides as they can get. Outside, a woman’s screaming at the top of her voice: ‘It’s a trap, can’t you see it’s a trap?’ And then another voice, a man’s, old, but not weak, carrying a lot of authority. It can only be Priam. ‘Cassandra,’ he says. ‘Go back home now, go home.’The Women of Troy
The war ends with the Greeks destroying Troy (I hope I haven’t spoilt that for anyone), and the women of Troy now belong to the victors. Some are sold off immediately to slave traders, some are kept to be slaves in the Greek compounds, the others are shared out as prizes, and those who are pregnant are killed in case they are carrying sons. Each female fate is decided by the men who led the Greek armies. It falls upon Brisies, pregnant with Achilles’ child, to look after the women when they arrive, a task she thinks should have fallen to Andromache who now belongs to Pyrrhus (Achilles’ son and the killer of Priam and Andromache’s son). But as Brisies knows, she has had to learn to survive living in the Greek compounds, so close to Achilles and his men, the women have to learn to obey their new masters.
When the royal women were shared out among the kings, there’d been a lot of joking at Odysseus’ expense. Agamemnon and several of the other kings had got Priam’s virgin daughters, Pyrrhus a sprightly young widow – plenty of go in that one, if she’d only cheer up a bit – whereas Odysseus was left with a scraggly old woman. Odysseus just shrugged, brushing the laughter aside. He knew he’d be taking home the only woman his wife, Penelope, would have accepted – and, with any luck, he might be able to convince her that he’d slept alone for the last ten years with nothing to while away his lonely evenings beyond the occasional game of skittles with his men.The Women of Troy
While Troy has fallen and the war has ended, the Greeks are still stuck in the compounds built on the edge of the sea, unable to return to their homelands. The wind has changed, constantly blowing against the ships, the sky a permanent jaundice colour. The men start to question if this is the work of the Gods. Through Brisies’ watchful eye we meet the royal women of Troy: Andromache, Hecuba and Cassandra, we learn their fates and their curses. We see their cunning plans that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, as they try to find any inch of power that they can against their new owners.
We also meet some of the slave women such as Helle, who was a slave in the Trojan halls and is the same now for the Greeks, but who’s spirit is resilient enough to come to lead the women around her. We also meet Amina, who seethes and plots to avenge the death of Priam. The women are constantly overlooked by the men of the camp but, as Barker shows, they are the ones that know everything and find ways to influence and manipulate. In one scene, Pyrrhus, discovering that someone has tried to give Priam a burial, comments that there are only two Trojans in camp (both men), what Brisies is quick to think is that there are hundreds, but they are women so can’t be seen as a threat.
I loved this book as much as I loved The Silence of the Girls. It’s full of tension and fraught with danger, but also full friendship and strength as the women try to protect each other in such terrible situations. The weather is such an omnipresent force throughout the whole novel, too, as the men are itching to get home but have to live in the ashes of the pillaged burnt-out city. The descriptions of the dead sea-life that washes up on the beach every morning out of the brown and thunderous waves. I also like the language Barker uses throughout, words that I hadn’t come across before but that paint such vivid images of the beaches and the life there: words such as ferrous, fungoid and frowsty. Some of the more modern language and terms did jar occasionally, but I also thought it helped make it feel real and accessible.
I highly recommend The Women of Troy, but I would recommend you read The Silence of the Girls first just so you can hit the ground running with this one and know who everyone is, but it is all explained in this one too. This book would be best enjoyed with a cup of wine, and some bread, cheese and olives.