THE WOMEN OF TROY by Pat Barker

This is the sequel to The Silence of the Girls, which I reviewed here in my blog and also in my YouTube Channel so check it out if you’re interested or if you want to know what the Silence of the Girls is all about before diving into this sequel review of the Women of Troy!

Troy has finally fallen, and Briseis and the rest of the women of Troy who were captured and now have to spend the rest of their lives as slaves for the Greeks are getting used to their new life. They are still living in the Greek camps outside of the fallen city of Troy, unable to board their ships and get back home because a fierce wind has picked up and refuses to abate. This for them is a clear sign that the Greeks have fallen out of favor with the Gods, and now they have to stay in that camp until the wind subsides. New alliances are made, as well as new enemies, and all the women have to grapple with their new life as slaves.

At moments I felt like this book lacked the emotional punch that the first book delivered. The narrative was sometimes too-matter-of-fact and emotionally detached for me to initially become wholly invested in this book. Fortunately, it did pick up as I kept reading and the new women characters who were introduced served to keep the plot going. Even though in terms of plot, there really isn’t much there. It’s more of like a day-to-day account of everything that happened in the Greek camps as they waited for the winds to finally subside.

Hecuba, who was the Queen of Troy and the widow of the murdered King of Troy, Priam, was a personal favorite for me. I loved how raunchy she was, even though she was supposed to be all prim-and-proper because of her condition of Queen. I also liked how she refused to accept her new status as slave, forcing even the great leading Greek men, like Odysseus, to treat her with the deference that she obviously thought she still deserved. Amina is also a very interesting new character. She was one of Hecuba’s ladies-in-waiting who also refused to submit to this new life as slave, and becomes defiant of the orders of the men, even though this ends up having dire consequences for her. What both of these new women have in common is their pride which they refuse to let go of.

This stands in stark contrast with Briseis, the narrator of the book, who is now married to Alcimus, one of Achilles’s myrmidons, and is carrying the child of Achilles in her belly. Achilles asked them to get married before he died because he wanted his child to be protected by one of his men, and Alcimus proves to be worthy of this role. I thought this marriage was very sweet, especially because Alcimus turns out to be very respectful of his new wife, which is something that I didn’t expect given how awful most of the Greek men are in this book, especially towards the women. In that sense, the relationship between Briseis and Alcimus was like a breath of fresh air. Briseis, ever the survivor, who adapts to her circumstances like water flowing through rocks and does what needs to be done in order to preserve her life and sanity, learns to appreciate Alcimus in time.

Even though she is a survivor and does not have as much personal pride as other characters in this book, there are a couple of moments where she acts heroically and consolidates herself as a strong character in my mind throughout the entirety of this book. She takes care of the other women, really caring for them, and has compassion for Helen even though the rest of the women hate her for bringing this war upon their city. She also never lies and tries to do the right thing in all circumstances, despite her penchant for survival. Her character arc is a great one overall and I was able to see her grow into her own strength throughout these two books.

Regarding Helen, at one point in this book she is described as the epitome of femininity, just as Achilles was the epitome of virile masculinity. In all regards, she is a vain and self-centered character. The women of troy blame her for the war, and hate her fervently, and many of them would kill her if they ever had the chance. But Briseis is more objective about this. She doesn’t hate Helen and rather sees her for who she is, refusing to blame her for the actions of men. Helen was guilty of abandoning her husband and running off with her lover, yes, but she was not guilty of the war and of all the deaths that resulted from it. The men who decided to go to war over her are the ones guilty of that, which would be King Menelaus of Sparta whose ego was so big he decided to destroy an entire city just to get back her estranged wife, as if she were her property rather than a human being with feelings and inclinations of her own. Briseis instinctively knows this, even though she never explicitly explains it to the reader. And it’s a shame that she seems to be the only woman who knows Helen is not really at fault for the destruction of Troy. It just goes to show how vicious women can be towards each other, while letting the men off the hook. Menelaus, and his brother Agamemnon are the ones guilty of the war and death. But this truth seems to slip the women by.

The character of Pyrrhus, Achilles’s 16 year old son who arrived at the Greek camp ten days after the death of his father, also had sort of an interesting character arc even if only viewed sporadically and mostly from the sidelines. At first he is a true villain, and a cruel, insecure boy-man, and does some really terrible things which made me basically hate him. Then we see the struggle within himself as he comes to grips with who he is and who he wants to be, and starts taking some steps to become better as a person. He is still a bad person but I can’t say that by the end of this book he is completely detestable. Of course he’s nowhere near as compelling a character as his father, Achilles, was, but that’s sort of the point–to show us his faults and what he lacks in comparison to his more mature father.

I also enjoyed the character of Calchas the prophet and the rivalry he gets into with Pyrrhus. I liked him because as a Trojan, he was one of the few characters who did not treat the women as objects but as people. And even though he did not become a slave after the fall of Troy but rather Agamemnon’s personal prophet, he still talked to the women of Troy that he knew his entire life as if they were his equals. I especially liked the relationship that he had with Hecuba, Priam’s widow. Without giving anything away, both of these characters are inextricably linked by a shared past, and never stopped appreciating and caring for the other.

I also really liked one of his lines in the book, which was (I’m paraphrasing) “With prophecy, everybody thinks they want a solution, but in reality they just want somebody to blame”. I liked the fact that when it came to prophecy, Calchas was not mystical, but rather he was cunning with what information he chose to share with the people. He knew he had power in his position as the King’s prophet and spent a great amount of time thinking about how to use this power, not for his own personal gain, but rather to stabilize the political atmosphere in the Greek camp. He was a key player and he knew it, but he wasn’t power hungry, which was very refreshing.

Back to the women. The slaves in the Greek camp end up banding together and showing solidarity for each other, even though some of them naturally don’t like each other or don’t become friends. But this doesn’t matter, because they can still see themselves in each other, and they have to learn to act as a unit because this is what benefits them. Briseis is probably the most compassionate character, and she is also a very acute observer, which allows her to get to know these women for who they truly are, and in turn, this enables her to realize in what way she can help them the most.

It was brilliant how Pat Barker used this trojan historical setting as a framework for a feminist study of the patriarchal oppression of women. She also shows us the toxic mentality of these oppressors, and how they reduce women to objects and basically judge women’s value or worth by extremely superficial standards, such as their looks. Pyrrhus constantly describes how repulsive he finds certain women. Even Alcimus, Briseis’s husband, falls prey to this when he calls Briseis the second-most beautiful woman in the world (after Helen), which granted, was a funny moment especially because Briseis herself finds the fact that she’s second-best in the eyes of her husband quite comical. But it still serves to show how even the best of men are guilty of valuing women for their looks, as if an attractive woman were simply worth more than an unattractive one.

This story is also a study on grief and how people deal with it. Since it is such a hyper-realistic setting, where all of the characters are living on the brink, we can see how different versions of grief manifest themselves as all these women try to cope with the awful things that happened to them. I just think the fall of troy is such a great setting to explore these themes, and provides a unique framework. Within the book, the Trojan War is once referenced as the greatest war in the world, which I found an interesting thing to state that really grounded me, as a reader, in the time period. Because right now, the greatest war ever would inevitably be WWII, but back then it was Troy. There are several different snips and bits of writing like this which make the whole story come alive and fleshes everything out, which I really appreciated.

Overall I give this a four out of five stars because Pat Barker was just so masterful in her feminist depiction of these women, and also because she seemed to live and breathe Troy throughout these two novels. I don’t give it five stars because it’s not really an inspiring read, and I do need to feel inspired and moved in order to give a five-star rating. Ultimately, both the Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy are very raw and brutal books, but worth the read nevertheless.

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