Barker’s ‘Women’ is a Dazzling Return to Troy

Thousands of years after the fall of Troy and long after the Greek gods’ influence faded, the stories and myths from that golden era still persist. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls revisiting of that era by unspooling a single mention of a Trojan woman, Briseis, who was given as a token in a power negotiation between Achilles and Agamemnon, into a rich imagining of how the other half—the female half—lived that story. Girls was gorgeous and sad, and felt immaculately researched (as the Book Twitter drama du jour shows isn’t guaranteed within the reimagined mythology genre, but that’s a conversation for another time). Its sequel, The Women of Troy, carries that torch. 

The Women of Troy starts not long after The Silence of the Girls ends, with the war all but won for Greece. From the belly of the wooden horse, the Greeks wait, then strike. With Troy fallen and its warriors killed, its women now move into the same camp where Briseis has lived since her own city was sacked. The influx of new women means a shift in the balance of power within that portion of the camp, especially with Queen Hecuba and the oracle Cassandra among their number. Briseis, now a wife to Alcimus and carrying Achilles’ baby, finds herself as a sort of welcoming committee and diplomat between the Greek and Trojan worlds, though the former dismisses her because she is a woman and the latter because her marriage is seen as a betrayal.

Yet it quickly becomes apparent, as the Greeks wait in vain for a sign from the gods that they can return home with their spoils of war, that there are factions both within the Trojan and Greek camps that could threaten the whole tenuous ecosystem. Pyrrhus, Achilles’ teenage son who arrived after his father’s death and killed the Trojan king, Primus, in a less-than-heroic fashion, is obsessed with filling his father’s massive shoes, but he only demands, not commands, respect. He insists Primus’ body be left out, desecrated and to the mercy of the elements, but some feel that treatment of even a dead enemy is too much. Cassandra, married unwillingly to Agamemnon, finds an ally in the priest Calchas in an attempt to undermine Pyrrhus’ inherited clout. Through it all, Briseis forges tenuous alliances and attempts to keep from falling afoul of those who wield the power in camp. She may be carrying Achilles’ baby, but she quickly finds that doesn’t offer her unlimited protection—and might even make her a target.

The cover for Pat Barker's The Women of Troy, which shows a large, stylized Trojan horse against a city wall. Beneath the horse, women, drawn in the Greek style, sit and stand. In the background, a city burns.
Cassandra told everyone to look that particular gift horse in the mouth, but then, she’s just a hysterical woman. No need to listen to her.

It was Briseis that guided us through The Silence of the Girls, and she is the predominant narrator in The Women of Troy, too. However, Pyrrhus and Calchas both get the odd chapter, told from a close third-person perspective rather than Briseis’ first-person point of view. These breaks away from the titular women provide glimpses into the male side of things, underscoring how fragile power is in that half of the camp—and how capricious. The nature of power and who wields it is at the heart of Women, especially where it is subverted, where it is glaringly absent. Hecuba, living in a tiny, filthy hut, believes she is still a queen, and those who followed her before Troy’s fall largely still agree. It is a servant girl who comes closest to disrupting the order of things on her own. But the women are still predominantly ignored.

Loss permeated the pages of Girls, while futility seeps through Women. With so little power of their own, some women give up, while others seek to wield it cleverly to maximum effect. A small knife striking into the flesh of an attacker, perhaps, by someone who is being strangled. Briseis sees the way the new women adjust to life in camp, how they have their dignity and autonomy and sense of self stripped away, and recognizes it as her not-too-distant self. Through that reflection, she has to confront her own choices and whether the sacrifices she has made for the existence offered to her were really better than simply sacrificing her life in totality. Crucially, Barker doesn’t vilify any women for their choices or how they cope with this new order of things. In some ways, this detached observation and Briseis’ attempts to understand it both as her remembered nineteen-year-old self and as the older woman doing the recollecting, makes it worse.

The dismissiveness with which the Greeks regard the surviving Trojan women—the women they have claimed as slaves and concubines and, sometimes, wives—is such that even reading it I felt helpless. Within that dismissiveness, though, is the opportunity for the intrigue within the women’s sphere, for the community to pull together to protect each other, without the men thinking them even capable of it. When a plot to bury and honor Primus’ body comes to light, Pyrrhus is convinced one or more men must have colluded with it, because no woman could think and do something of that caliber all on her own. Again and again the Greeks wonder what they could have done to anger the gods, not considering that perhaps raping Apollo’s oracle—Cassandra—in Athena’s temple might have something to do with it, for starters. She is, after all, just a woman. It was, after all, just a rape.

A screen-cap of a tweet reading:

guys: women are a mystery.
women: Here is what we-
guys: Literally what do they want?
women: well for start-
guys: Guess we'll never know!
Thank goodness we’ve evolved as a species and listen to women now.

The Greeks may control every aspect of camp, but they cannot control the internality of their captives. Even Alcimus, Briseis’ pretty-decent-all-things-considered husband, doesn’t grasp this fact. Alcimus assumes Briseis loved Achilles—because he loved Achilles, because everyone loved Achilles, and how could someone given the honor of carrying Achilles’ child not love Achilles?

“We women are peculiar creatures,” Briseis tells us, thinking of her slain brothers and husband. “We tend not to love those who murder our families.”

The Women of Troy is not, I would say, a misandrist work, though the spheres between men and women are flung wildly apart. Men as a whole are not the enemy, as the women almost universally mourn men killed in previous battles. Even the men who are captors and the men who think nothing of the women they are holding captive—the women whose city they have sacked and whose lives they’ve overturned—are not decried as evil. They are simply thoughtless. They are simply the rocky landscape upon which the women now have to tread. What The Women of Troy is, is a deeply feminist and quietly profound work that sheds a little light on the imagined world beyond Homer’s enduring tale of heroism during war, one that resonates even in today’s world far removed from the blessing of those storied gods.

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