After Troy Falls, The Women In This Novel Wait, Watch, And Wish Things Were Different
The women of Troy opens with warriors squatting, silent, and waiting in the belly of the Trojan horse, “packed tight like olives in a jar”.
The city is pierced and Pyrrhus, son of the dead hero Achilles, makes his way to Priam, the king of Troy. It’s supposed to be his prime, but he’s fumbling. He manages to kill Priam, awkwardly, but not before being humiliated and taunted by the old man. Hiding behind an altar and watching her humiliation is a group of women.
It’s a fitting opening scene: Pat Barker’s two Trojan War novels, The women of Troy and 2018 The silence of the girls, speak of women intelligently testifying to the incompetence and brutality of men. They might be powerless to stop it, but they can at least tell a different story than the one these men tell about themselves.
The silence of the girls was based on the events of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Briseis, Achilles’ concubine. The women of Troy Much takes place after the fall of the city, when the victorious Greek warriors are trapped on the beaches, prevented from returning home by the wrath of the gods, expressed by a relentless wind.
At the start of the novel, Achilles died, and Briseis, pregnant with her child, was married (“a semen-stained sheet wrapped around my shoulders, breadcrumbs in my hair, a feeling of unease, a smell of sex” ) to another of the Greek warriors. The novel is inspired less by Homer than by Euripides Women of Troy, which follows destitute women after the fall of Troy, and plays with many of the same themes as the play: captivity, departure, burial of the dead.
Euripides’ piece is a long moan of pain; as the classic Gilbert Murray wrote in a preface to his translation, “The only movement of the drama is the gradual extinction of all the familiar lights of human life …” But there is a certain tension in the question of knowing what to do with an unimaginable and unalterable tragedy. Should women, for example, try to love their new husbands, the very ones who killed their old ones?
Barker’s women are also captives, choosing to live in various states of compromise, defiance, or resignation. As if to make the contrast between these states clearer, she also introduces another character, obviously modeled on Antigone, the woman of the Greek canon who most clearly embodies a radical adherence to the principle in the face of overwhelming pressure. This character, Amina, flies to the shore, where the defeated body of Priam, the king of Troy, is rotting and attempts to bury him.
The women of Troy isn’t Barker’s best – he may seem simplistic in his understanding of right and wrong, and the plot is dominated by that “gradual extinction” described by Murray. He is saved from being utterly gloomy, however, by Barker’s brutal and often funny prose; his tongue would not be out of place in a Liverpool pub (“bugger”, “gobshite”).
The novel is immersive and textured: full of smoke from the fires and sand whipped by the wind that keeps the Greek army stranded on shore. –
The novel is immersive and textured: full of smoke from the fires and sand whipped by the wind that keeps the Greek army stranded on shore. The shore is littered with the corpses of sea creatures, thrown by the violent waves. It is also populated by ghosts of men, “all the men carried away by this bloody tide”, empty armor lined up in a shed, empty shirts hanging to dry. A meal abandoned in the shadow of Troy; the city’s overgrown and rotten orchards.
In The women of Troy, Pyrrhus compulsively polishes his late father’s shield, apparently hoping to glean some of his father’s greatness. It’s hard not to think of WH Auden’s poem “The Shield of Achilles“, where the mother of the warrior, Thetis, watches, horrified, the scene that Hephaestus forged on the shield to please his son. She looks” For the vineyards and the olive trees, / The marble cities well governed “but instead sees a kid alone in a field:
That girls are raped, that two boys stab a third,
Were axioms for him, who had never heard
Of everyone where promises have been kept,
Or you could cry because someone else was crying.
There is absolute brutality in this vision of battle – Auden published it in 1952, after World War II – which resembles Barker’s novel. And there is also something familiar about Thetis’s observant presence, his fear and his despair. Yet another woman watching, wishing things were different.