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Women of Troy by Pat Barker

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War’s end

 Pat Barker’s second Trojan War novel begins inside the Wooden Horse as the Greeks wait to see if Odysseus’ trick will work and The Trojans will transport the Horse within their walls. This is an effective scene with the stink of the soldiers’ sweat, their fear that the plan is just too preposterous, their attempts to appear brave and unconcerned. The scene centres on the youthful son of Achilles, the lately arrived Pyrrhus, who has much to prove to the other warriors and to himself. The fall of Troy and Pyrrhus’ brutal murder of King Priam are rendered with apocalyptic violence, Pyrrhus realising he has fallen lamentably short of his father’s ability, insulted by the dying Priam in front of the watching women of Troy. Pyrrhus orders the body of the dead king to be unburied.

 This impiety of the victorious Greeks leads to punishment from the gods, the fleet unable to depart from the Trojan coast, tormented by an endless wind whose moans echoes the spirits of the dead Trojans. In this desert-like landscape wander the Trojan women, now slaves of their Greek conquerors and the soldiers, anxious to depart for home. Among the women is Briseis, once the ‘prize’ of Achilles, now married to his lieutenant, and carrying Achilles’ child. As a free Trojan, respected for her marriage, she visits the captive women offering them what help she can.

 Barker’s novel is not what I imagined it might be: I had thought it a sort of retelling of Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women. Yes, the characters from that play all appear: Queen Hekabe, Priam’s widow, now the slave of Odysseus, but formidable still; Spartan Helen, reconciled to her husband Menelaus, hated by all; Cassandra, wed to Agamemnon, grimly satisfied with the future she alone foresees; Andromache, Hector’s widow, bereft of her child, now concubine of the brutal Pyrrhus. But the part played by these women is minor. The author places the unburied corpse of Priam at the centre, ropes in the plot of another ancient work, the Antigone of Sophocles, and makes Greek departure from the land of Troy contingent on the observation of moral decencies demanded of victors.

 For me what made this a marvellous novel was the brilliant portrayal of Pyrrhus. He is Achilles’ son, so he is strong and powerful. But he is Achilles’ son, so he is insecure and feels inadequate in comparison to his father. He is a violent killer, but he can be surprisingly thoughtful and sensitive. His relationship with Briseis who carries Achilles’ unborn child is interesting and, if there is another novel to succeed this one, it will be fascinating to see how that relationship develops.

 The novel is demonstrably of the same world as its predecessor, but its atmosphere of doom, of the dissatisfaction of victory, of the maltreatment of the conquered, of the perceived inadequacies of the men, especially Pyrrhus, of the longsuffering patience of the women, their desire for revenge, but also for peace, all these integrate into an immensely moving whole. Some may not like it as much as the first. But the first had Achilles. This one has his son. And the story is not over. There may be more to come.

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Kathryn Ann Algeo-Henderson

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I have just been gifted The Silence of the Girls and the Women of Troy and I am looking forward to getting started on them.  Good to hear they are worth the read!