The Women of Troy is a continuation of Pat Barkers previous work, Silence of the Girls, a book I read earlier last year and the reason I pre-ordered this sequel. It was the first book I had read by the author and was so impressed by it, that when this one arrived on the 26th of August, I was afraid to read it: would it live up to the hype I had created in my head? Did I want to spoil my imaginings of what Briseis’s life would be like once Troy falls? Can a sequel ever live up to its predecessor? (Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee ruined me!) All these questions left me feeling intimidated and delaying the inevitable. When I did finally pick up this book, in late November, I devoured it in a couple of days, of course I needn’t have worried, The Trojan Women are in safe hands as the story moves on from war to its aftermath.
The book starts in the belly of the beast, as the Greek soldiers wait, silently inside the wooden horse. Amongst them is Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, and now the leader of the Myrmidons, desperate to prove himself worthy and living in the shadow of the great warrior, he sets out to kill King Priam to avenge his father. Once the City falls, and the Greeks have looted it and distributed its remaining women amongst themselves they are eager to set sail for home. Unfortunately, the winds are not in their favour. As the weather becomes increasingly erratic, the conquers begin to wonder which of the Gods they may have offended and how they will placate them to get safe passage home.
Briseis, pregnant with Achilles child, and now married to Alcimus, wonders around the camp, helping the women of Troy in whichever way she can. She meets Helen, beautiful Helen, blamed for the war and recipient of the one uniting feeling amongst everyone in the camps, hatred. Helen is once again with Menelaus and spends her days weaving in isolation. The story also includes Cassandra, gifted to Agamemnon, Hecuba, wife of Priam and Amina, a religious Trojan determined to avenge the fallen king.
As the men in the camps become increasingly restless the leaders become progressively desperate. Agamemnon calls upon Calchas, the priest, to figure out what might be offending the Gods, while Pyrrhus, who has left the decaying body of King Priam out for all to see, is disturbed to find that someone has attempted to bury it. With only two Trojans amongst them, because of course the hundreds of Trojan women don’t count, his suspicions fall on both Helenus and Calchas.
The brutality of war is everywhere in this retelling, particularly in the language of the book, nothing is romanticised, there’s no poetry the imagery is bleak and sullen. The men, boys and even pregnant women of Troy are all killed to ensure the total devastation of that nation and the women that survive are raped, violently assaulted and enslaved. Pat Barker writes the mood of this book to perfection. Briseis, reflects on her own experience, being raped by Achilles days after watching him kill her brothers and now carrying his child. She reflects on her experience, considering it to be the worst possible, but looking around the Greek camps, at the poorer, older women and how they now scavenge around the camps, she considers herself “lucky”.
The central thread revolves around the death and burial of King Priam. Initially it enrages Pyrrhus that anyone on the island would attempt it and later, to assuage the vengeful Gods and to get good wind to sail home, the dead kings cremation. Whilst the councils all centre around the whims of men; Agamemnon, Odysseus, Menelaus and Pyrrhus, it is the women of Troy who work harder to ensure everything goes to plan. Whilst most of the Characters are true to the original, Pat Barker creates the character of Amina, a religious slave woman. Another slave women, who has somehow managed to hide her pregnancy has a baby boy, who must now remain hidden from the Greeks. Calchas and Pyrrhus are also given voices in the narrative, but whilst The Silence of the Girls couldn’t avoid Achilles shadow looming over the entire story, The Women of Troy centres Briseis and the women in the camp.
If you haven’t read The Silence of the Girls, I would certainly urge you to read it first. It’s not essential, the book stands well on its own, but to get a greater feeling and understanding of the characters and their journey to this point, I think it helps and undoubtedly added to my enjoyment of The Women of Troy. Whether you are new to mythology or have been reading it for years, what Pat Barker has created with this retelling feels like an important addition to the genre. It amplifies the voices of women and centres, not just as objects the men played with, bartered with, or went to war over, but as individuals caught up in the tragedy of war.
Title: The Women of Troy
Originally published: 24 August 2021 by Hamish Hamilton
Author: Pat Barker
Genres: Historical Fiction, War story, Fairy tale, Mythology