Review: The Women of Troy, by Pat Barker
Here we go - this will be a speedy one, I think, because ultimately this isn't a book that's going to sit with me long, or that I'll think about much longer, or revisit or recommend to other people to read, I think.
So why isn't it tagged as a bad book, I hear you ask? Well, because it's not bad per se. It's just kind of... there.
This is the follow-up to Pat Barker's absolutely smash-hit success The Silence of the Girls, and tells the story of what happens to the women taken as slaves by the victorious Greek fighters after the fall of Troy and the death of Achilles. The main POV character, and main first-person narrator, is still Briseis, the slave girl who in The Iliad is at the heart of the rift between Achilles and Agamemnon in the last few years of the siege. The one thing I do really like about Barker's mythical retellings is that she, unlike some other authors (Helen Morales, glaring at you quite pointedly), is that she doesn't assume that her readers are coming in with no foreknowledge of Greek myths and stories - she accepts as a given that you know what the story of the Trojan War is, so you don't lose a lot of narrative space or dialogue time in explaining a backstory and a context that, really, should be an educational shorthand (insert impassioned plea for retaining classics and history and literature in the standard school curriculum here. But I also think everyone should learn Latin and at least two living foreign languages in school, so, yes, I'm aware, I am an elitist snob, we can move on now).
My main gripe about this book was the same problems I picked up on in the first one - this book is supposedly about the women who lose their voices and whatever little agency they had when their menfolk all got brutally slaughtered and their home conquered. They go from positions of limited power and influence to, all of a sudden, not even being considered people, and so this is a novel that's supposed to tell the story of an aftermath from the point of the view of the least of the victims - so why, why, are there so many POV chapters from the men? Why is one of the central male characters, who is actually more relevant to the plot than the first-person narrator even is, Pyrrhus of all people? Why do Cassandra and Andromache and Hecuba have only a single-digit lines of dialogue between them? Why are we getting just another run-of-the-mill Trojan War retelling from the point of view of a victorious Greek fighter? We've had those so many times before and quite frankly, Madeleine Miller does it better.
Also I'm not quite sure what the story was supposed to tell - maybe that's because I didn't read this book in one go, but rather kept dipping in and out and reading a couple of chapters after I finished other books, but the plot never seemed much beyond Briseis not wanting to be pregnant with Achilles's baby (which, to be fair to her, I do completely understand) and thinking that her fellow slavewomen are being stupid and not strategic enough. And the shifts in POV chapters didn't really make sense, which had the added benefit of creating new characters that needed to be parcelled off and storylines wrapped up artificially in the last chapter.
Also, what the fuck was that ending? It was both weird and anti-climactic, and nobody ever faced any consequences for the actions they had undertaken throughout the novel. That might have been the point, that the powerful can do what they want and nobody can ever hold them to account, but if that had been Barker's point then I really wish it had been made more deliberately clear, instead of feeling like an accident of the storytelling.
Honestly, I'd say give this one a pass - stick to Madeleine Miller. And I don't think I'll be picking up any more of Barker's myth retellings in the future, since she doesn't actually centre the women or their stories she's saying she's reclaiming.