August marked the publication of Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy, one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. Having devoured The Silence of the Girls, Barker’s feminist retelling of Homer’s Iliad, it only felt right to dedicate our August column spot to its continuation.
While The Silence of the Girls ends by describing the fate of Troy, her latest novel delves into the aftermath. The book recaps the Greek invasion, beginning from the packed interior of a wooden horse. Barker describes the scene as the men await the coming battle, namely Pyrrhus, the teenage son of the late and great Achilles. He is nervous, fearful of death and desperate for the glory that will define his future. From a reader’s perspective, it’s easy to question why a book about women should begin with such an extended look at a group of men. However, we soon realise that interrogating masculinity, hierarchy and power is central to understanding their story.
Survival is a defining theme throughout The Women of Troy. Like all wars, both ancient and contemporary, Barker reminds us that they are brutal and unrelenting. In this case, the tragedy of war leaves behind a group of women, captured into an unknown future after the sacking, burning and massacring of their home city. We receive a stark and lasting reminder of this from Briseis, the book’s central narrator.
Since she is carrying the last child of Achilles, she is married off to one of the Greeks and granted her own servant – Amina. Strong willed and fearless at times, Amina insists on giving their former leader a proper burial after his body is dishonoured by the victorious soldiers. At this moment, Briseis brings her back to reality: “Look, Amina, if you’re going to survive, you’ve got to start living in the real world. Troy’s gone. In this compound, whatever Pyrrhus wants, Pyrrhus gets.” From the very beginning, survival is firmly in the minds of the Trojan women – no matter what it takes.
As established in this scene, sisterhood is incredibly important to The Women of Troy. Much like The Silence of the Girls, Barker skips out on the glorification of military success and instead pays real attention to the relationships, thoughts and experiences of the Trojan women. Their sufferings are intense, and while the classics may have explored this to a degree, many feel their stories have gone untold for far too long.
Subversions and retellings of the classics have grown increasingly popular over the last decade, particularly those that offer fresh and feminist perspectives. While the likes of Madeline Millar, Natalie Haynes and Elodie Harper have put their own stamp on the myths of the past, Barker reaches new levels of originality. By combining a contemporary voice and completely overthrowing the language that you’d expect to find in an epic, she brings something new and accessible to these stories like no other. At times comical and at others heart-wrenching, she makes the stars of classical mythology likeable, intriguing and painfully real.
As the Greeks look forward to their glorious return, equipped with the spoils of war, the bonds between them quickly begin to wither. While centering and elevating the experiences of women, Barker tells a tale that brings power, masculinity and the fragility of war into sharp focus. Perfect for people who enjoy viewing ancient history through a contemporary lens, this is a glittering achievement from the highly-acclaimed writer.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.