Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy is a sequel to her previous book, The Silence of the Girls. It continues the story of Briseis, and I can see more books in the pipeline, as further ramifications of the Trojan War unfurl.
In some ways The Silence of the Girls can be read as a feminist retelling of the Trojan War, and heavily draws on the Iliad, whereas The Women of Troy focuses on the immediate repercussions of the war, and does not closely follow any Classical text. It does not limit itself to the women taken from Troy, and so presents a female focused view of a greater scope than is often seen in plays such as Euripides’s The Trojan Women.
This difference is primarily due to the use of Briseis as the main narrator. Briseis might be aligned with the Trojans, but her time in the Greek camp has altered her point of view. She is stuck in an odd position, seen as a Trojan by the Greeks, but not accepted by the enslaved Trojan women. The complexities of identity, and how they are viewed, is made most apparent by the Greek soldiers’ odd ignoring of all the enslaved Trojan women, particularly when considering how many Trojans were in the Greek camp. To them, women count for so little that they have no national identity.
Unlike works such as Euripides’s The Trojan Women and Hecuba, Helen is not portrayed as universally hated by all the women linked to Troy. It would be wrong to say that Barker gives a fully sympathetic depiction of Helen, but the way in which her life is predicated on the decisions of men (and gods) is evident. All of the women are dependent on men for their survival, and by including characters for whom the fall of Troy has merely changed who they are enslaved by, Barker illustrates the impact of a misogynistic culture.
The use of both Pyrrhus (Achilles’s son) and Calchas (a priest in the Greek camp) also adds a particular slant to the narrative, and neatly links back to key events of The Silence of the Girls. I cannot think of any other work that considers Pyrrhus’s emotional reaction to the events of the Trojan War in quite the same way.
These character’s show Barker’s depth of knowledge of these myths and the potential for change. In delving into Calchas’s backstory, she neatly weaves in the idea that he is Trojan by birth. As well as helping the novel’s plot, this change blends together sources as chronologically different as Euripides’s work, and that of Chaucer.
It is rather refreshing to read a novel that works with myths, happy to pick and choose whichever strands of narrative work best. Often, modern retellings seem to want to isolate the ‘original’ or ‘authentic’ version of a myth, when no such thing ever existed. Stories change and characters might be introduced or recast at whim.
That sense of focusing on the work as entertainment is key. I have read reviews that critique Barker for her use of language and anachronistic descriptions. They rather miss the point, which is that myths work when readers are engaged, and so using contemporary language is vital.
So, I hope that The Women of Troy will have a sequel of its own, and that Barker turns her skilled hands to weaving in other myths to extrapolate Briseis’s future.
Words by Ed Bedford
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