After reading Pat Barker’s magnificent Silence of the Girls, I wondered how she would follow such a remarkable book especially as Women of Troy, in essence, deals with the same setting and situation. Well, she has written a magnificent sequel.

Essentially, Women of Troy explores the way the women of Troy and those taken captive from other towns that were sacked by the Greek forces, were treated by the victors and how those who survived coped, in what is arguably the most famous war in western myth: The Trojan War.

Silence of the Girls deals with the last months of the ten-year siege and the impact the hubris of the Greek’s greatest hero, Achilles, had on the soldiers and the tragic consequences of his choices. It tells the story from the point of view of Briseis, an enslaved princess who is given to Achilles (after Agamemnon) as a war trophy. The war, whilst ongoing is very much in the background. It’s a powerful, moving novel that gives voice to the silenced, turns those who are largely absent from the history, from the battles, into three dimensional characters who are no less victims of violence than their brothers, husbands, sons and the other men who fall beneath the brutality of Greek blades. 

The Women of Troy takes a slightly different approach, fundamentally starting with the city’s fall – when the Greeks pretend to sail away, leaving the most notorious of all gifts at Troy’s gates: a huge wooden horse. Once again, the main point of view is Briseis, but others are also included, namely Achilles’ son, the adolescent Pyrrhus who is struggling to fill his father’s considerable boots. He’s also the man (boy) who slayed not only King Priam, but Andromache’s baby, and also sacrificed a girl to appease the gods. Considered a hero – a title he desperately wants to wear but struggles with as well – he is both feared and held in contempt by wiser, older veterans. With the war won and the Greek soldiers keen to leave the shores that have held them for a decade, preparations commence – that is, until a fierce wind, that can only be gods-sent, arises to keep the fleet and thus the war-weary bickering tribes of men and their female booty land-bound. 

As time passes and tensions rise, it’s not only the gods’ wrath the Greeks and their captives have to worry about…

Brilliant, insightful, gut-wrenching in its starkness and recreation of the war and what’s essentially never spoken about – the behind the scenes drudgery, cruelty and sexual and physical exploitation of the women and the psychological and emotional toll this takes, this novel is utterly remarkable and a fantastic companion read to Silence of the Girls. Filled with familiar characters – from Cassandra and Hecuba to Odysseus and Helen, it also introduces lesser known people (women) from the tales these events spawned and their fates. 

I’ll never read the Iliad, Aeneid, or the other plays and poems about this epic war and its central characters, the terrible events leading up to it and its aftermath, in the same way again. 

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I don’t know why I waited so long to read this book, especially because the Iliad and the myths and plays about the gods, men and women involved in the Trojan War are among my favourite reads. Then, of course, there is Madeline Miller’s sublime, Song of Achilles. Yet, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls manages to do what few of these other creative works have done – take us into the heads and hearts of the women who, as a consequence of war and men’s hubris, greed and toxic masculinity become, to use that heartless, revolting term “collateral damage.”

In Silence of the Girls, Barker tells an ancient story in modern and sparse prose, yet without sacrificing poetry and depth.  The ten-year long Trojan War is told mainly through the eyes of one of the female “spoils”, the princess, Briseis, who is awarded to the great hero and demi-god, Achilles, after her home is sacked. If you’re familiar with the Iliad, you know what happens to both her and the man who claims her. After some time, King Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia, to launch the thousand ships, demands Briseis for himself. This happens when he is forced to give up his female prize (the priestess, Chryseis) to end a terrible plague wreaking havoc in the Greek camp. As a consequence, a sulking Achilles, publicly deprived of his “prize”, and with his ego bent and honour trampled upon, refuses to fight any longer and withdraws from battle. The Greeks, who after nine years at war were close to victory, begin to lose ground. And so, the two leaders of men, Achilles and Agamemnon, very nearly bring the Greeks and their allies to the point of destruction – over a girl. 

Well, it’s this girl (and others) who is finally given a voice and who describes what it was like for these women who survived the sack of their cities and murder of their families only to be claimed by the very men who committed the atrocities. Not merely objectified as prizes, slaves, and kept for sexual gratification, they suffer in ways the men either don’t understand or remain wilfully ignorant to – all against a backdrop of horrific bloodshed and loss. They also suffer in relative silence, knowing articulating their fears, their grief and anger, will not only put them in danger but make their situation (and that of the women who share it) immeasurably worse. 

The strength this takes is never openly portrayed, but it’s there with every word, every action, every visceral description of what is done to them and what they bear witness to. This is a powerful novel about war, yes, that brings to life one of western culture’s most enduring myths and the heroes that colour it, but it’s so much more and so much richer. In giving voice to those we’ve never heard before, by portraying their situation, the daily grind for survival, the bonds that are forged, even among enemies, the threads of understanding that are woven into the everyday, the sheer bravery and grit of these women, what was once a two-dimensional (and stunning) tale is given a third and extraordinary dimension. It brings the horror of the Trojan War to life in ways few renditions do and pictures suffering in such stark prose, it is gut-wrenching yet also, strangely, hope-filled as well. Courage comes in all guises and in this novel, it’s that which occurs in the camps, among the dispossessed and brutalized that is sung.

Powerful, enduring, a classic. Will stay with me for a long, long time.

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