The Women of Troy by Pat Barker
Published by Doubleday
Publication date: August 24, 2021
Genres: Fiction, Historical
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Helen has always been the most well-known woman from the legend of Troy, but author Pat Barker brings to life another woman who, through no will of her own, played a role even more critical to the Trojan War mythology. Briseis. The queen of a city sacked by Achilles when the war first began, she was given to him as a war prize to be his concubine. Barker’s last novel, The Silence of the Girls, follows Breseis’ life in the camps amongst the other captured women. Also, one of the most defining moments of the war—when King Agamemnon forced Achilles to give him Briseis. In retaliation, Achilles and his fearsome tribe of warriors withdrew from the fighting and the tide turned against the Greeks. Only when Briseis was returned to him did the fearsome Achilles fight again and the tide turned.
Now, Barker is back with The Women of Troy. Years have passed, the war has ended, Achilles is dead, and Briseis is pregnant with his child. Before his last battle Achilles gave Briseis to Alcimus, a trusted general, to prevent her being auctioned off with his other possessions. She lives in comparative safety and comfort within in the camps, but is now joined by the Trojan spoils of war, its women. There is Queen Hecuba, the reviled Helen, Cassandra, and the handmaiden Amima. Hanging over their trauma and enslavement are two larger issues. One, Achilles son, Pyrrhus killed King Priam, but has desecrated his corpse by refusing to allow its burial. Two, the winds the Greeks need to launch their ships home have turned against them, blowing inland.
Barker uses this scenario to great effect. On the surface The Women of Troy is clearly about victims and victors. The grieving Hecuba knowing her husband’s body has not been buried; Cassandra, the doomed psychic, knowing her marriage to a Greek king will end in her death; and even the reviled Helen, returned to her husband to be beaten and raped nightly. All played off against the victors, who have destroyed Troy, massacred all the males, destroyed its temples, and looted its famed wealth. But underneath the victory is the grim truth that the victors are trapped, unable to leave. Viewed as being of no value and unworthy of notice the victimized women find their own ways to restore honor to their culture and extract some small measure of retribution.
I love how Barker pokes at the traditional interpretations of the Trojan War. Without abandoning the original story, she pulls out ‘insignificant’ details, revealing a truer picture. And not just regarding women. Pyrrhus’ behavior may have been abominable, but he was a 16-year-old boy, not a man. It’s this kind of probing that moves The Women of Troy off the shelf of dry, classical reading and into the realm of engrossing entertainment.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.*