The literary critic James Wood once wrote dismissively of historical fiction, saying that it is “merely science fiction facing backwards.” We inject the concerns of the present into the past, Wood suggests, the same way that we do when we write about the imaginary future, and this can result in a text that feels contrived. Yet for fans of the genre, the inevitable interplay between the concerns of the present and the constraints of the past is precisely where the interest of well-done historical fiction resides.
Pat Barker understands this well. She is the author of over a dozen novels, perhaps best known for her Regeneration Trilogy, an antiwar story set during Word War I. Barker’s new novel, The Women of Troy—a sequel to her previous book The Silence of the Girls—is a feminist retelling of the events of the Trojan War. The Silence of The Girls retold the events of The Iliad by giving voice to the long-silent Briseis, the young woman whose status as a “prize of honor” sets in motion the events of Homer’s epic. In that volume, Barker did not shy away from imagining the realities of life for captured girls and women in the Greek “rape camp,” and refused to turn the history between Briseis and Achilles into a love story. Like its predecessor, The Women of Troy returns voice and agency to characters who were silenced in the original epic.
The Women of Troy picks up immediately following The Silence of the Girls, although there is plenty of explanation for those who might pick up this volume without having read the first. Troy has been defeated, most of its population massacred, and dozens of women have been claimed as slaves and parceled out between the victorious Greek warriors. Eager to depart for home, the Greek forces find themselves stranded by a mysterious wind, a sign that they have displeased the gods.
Barker’s writing is swift, detailed, and immersive. She tends to favor short Anglo-Saxon words, and she isn’t afraid to be vulgar. Though the novel belongs to Briseis, as in its predecessor, she occasionally grants us access to the point of view of the male characters. The novel begins from the perspective of Pyrrhus, the disappointing son of Achilles, from inside the famous Trojan horse itself: “Inside the horse’s gut: heat, darkness, sweat, fear. They’re crammed in, packed tight as olives in a jar… Each man shifts from side to side, trying to ease his shoulders into a little more space, all intertwined and wriggling like worms in a horse’s shite.”
At the end of the previous book, Briseis, pregnant with Achilles’s child, was married off to the relatively kind Alcimus. In The Women of Troy, she struggles to adjust to her change in status, from slave to wife of a Greek fighter. Expected to align with the Greeks, she still identifies with the Trojan women and spends much of the book seeking to help those women in any way she can. As far as I can tell, the interlude in which this novel takes place is Barker’s own invention, not taken directly from Classical sources. After the epic events of the first novel, The Women of Troy moves at a slower pace, and is mostly concerned with the fallout from the events of the first volume. This set-up also serves as a chance to spend more time with the most famous women of Troy—Hecuba, Andromache, and the doomed prophetess Cassandra.
Most of Briseis’s inner journey in this outing follows her own developing understanding of justice and revenge. She finds a foil in Amina, a young Trojan who refuses to accept her change in circumstances. When Briseis and Amina come across the unburied body of Priam on the beach, Briseis suspects the other woman will attempt to bury him, despite the fact that the punishment for doing so is death. Centering around an unburied body and the distinction between human law and divine justice, this plot is most reminiscent of Sophocles’s Antigone.
As in the previous novel, Barker unblinkingly depicts the bleakness of the surviving women’s lot, lightened only by their kindnesses toward one another. When Briseis visits the famous Helen, she finds her covered in bruises—her husband’s punishment for her adultery. Andromache, Hector’s widow, who had to watch as Pyrrhus threw her toddler son off the battlements at Troy in the previous book, finds herself awarded to Pyrrhus as his “prize of honor.” As in The Silence of the Girls, The Women of Troy creates a strong emotional effect simply by turning our focus away from the heroic deeds of the men to the suffering and invisibility of the women.
Historical fiction that seeks to reclaim the silent lives of women from the historical record is of course not new. Perhaps the most anachronistic aspect of Briseis’s character is her indifference to the gods; there is something that feels very modern about her rejection of a divine plan arising from her own experiences of acute suffering. Then again, why should we assume that religious belief five thousand years ago was more monolithic than in our own time? This is the kind of suspension of disbelief that historical fiction often requires of its readers, and that Wood would no doubt find fault with, but for those willing to go on the journey, this kind of reading is rich with other rewards.
The Women of Troy, if perhaps not as dazzling as its predecessor, continues Briseis’s tale in a satisfying way and allows an opening for what I hope will be another volume of her story. It may be impossible to know exactly what people living over three thousand years ago may have thought or how they might have interpreted their own lives, but Barker’s novel succeeds at making us understand that what they felt—the grief of the Trojan women—cannot have been much different than our own.
The Women of Troy
by Pat Barker
Published August 24th, 2021