‘The Women Of Troy’ is the sequel to Pat Barker’s incredible novel, ‘The Silence Of The Girls,’ and it leaves us exactly where we were left on the final page.
Well, here we are. Troy has fallen. More women for the spoils of the Greek army, as Briseis thinks while sympathising with the Trojan Andromache over being raped by Pyrrhus, thinking that she was once not so long ago in her place being raped by Pyrrhus’s father, Achilles. We watch Andromache go through what Briseis did before her, replaying her character arc and strife. Dryly and tragically, she thinks, “The walls of Troy have well and truly been breached.” Especially comical, considering that Briseis is carrying Achilles’s baby, which protects her from the harm afforded to the other women. Rape is a common occurrence and has lost the shock factor that it had in the beginning. That is their lives now.
Briseis is reliving her past horrors of being Achilles’s war prize, being groped and raped, while still reeling from her family’s and people’s massacres. Andromache is the same, yet more timid and tired. Pyrrhus is strange, cruel, and pathetic, and described as a “weedy little sapling struggling to survive in the shadow of a great oak.” A man that’s always going to fall short in the shadow of the “greatest” warrior ever to live, and always going to be watched and judged. “He was always acting out some idea of himself, as if he were living his whole life in front of a mirror.”
Now the men are afraid. The wind has changed, and the men are now re-playing their former “glories” and having to deal with the consequences of their actions. Perhaps, they think, they have disrespected the gods by raping Cassandra – Apollo’s priestess – in Athena’s temple. Athena, the protector of cities children and women. “Temples desecrated, children murdered, women raped…” The men are now stuck on the piece of land they once planned the downfall of Troy. They are wondering why the Gods are not letting them leave the site of the Greek’s greatest victory. The sky is red and burning although the fires of Troy have long burnt out. Past glories are now being re-lived as potential horrors and disrespect to the Gods. Common phenomenon such as wind blowing sand along the beach is now seen as an omen and uncanny. The changing of the wind direction has doomed them to Purgatory, and they are afraid.
“But then he hears a new sound, somewhere between a groan and a roar, and it seems to be coming from the ground beneath his feet. Singing sand. A recognised phenomenon, familiar to everybody who lives along this coast…” The words ‘recognised’ and ‘familiar’ are comforting, because they seek to tame the experience, to bring it out of the realms of the uncanny and establish that it’s merely part of normal life. “…Though it’s not really singing at all – it’s a far more menacing sound – and it seems to be coming from deep inside the Earth. As if the dead had found a voice at last – or perhaps recovered the voices they once had.”
Even the least superstitious Agamemnon fears the dead, covering his mirrors as if all of the ghosts he murdered would pour back through the glass to haunt him.
The women of Troy serve as a brutal reminder not only of the soldier’s glory but also of their past shames. Perhaps they weren’t as brave and heroic as they thought? Perhaps murdering men and children and raping the women left behind isn’t as valiant as they thought it was.
The men are started to gripe at each other, and the games they have going to keep up morale ends in fights more than it does a friendly competition. “Every day began in hope, every day ended in disappointment. They’d just won a war. How could it be that this victory, the greatest in the history of the world – and it was, there’s no denying it – had started to taste like defeat?”
Even Briseis feels a growing unease, a sense of dread what she can’t quite find the cause of. Crows have started to take over the compound – a universal omen of warning. The entire book is punctuated by the reminder of non-stop howling wind, screams and howls reminiscent of a failing city, that just won’t let up.
Several times throughout the book, women’s place is made clear. Women are ignored and invisible, and finally when Briseis’ life is on the line, does she stand up for herself and say, “Do you think women have no views? No loyalties?” Briseis’ loyalties lie to Troy, regardless of what she has done to ensure her survival. Her loyalties and honour take precedent in this book, while the previous novel was based on her survival.
When Pyrrhus pathetically kills Priam, we forget that Hecuba and several other women were witnesses in the room to his feeble assassination – and he forgot too, which comes to a head later in the novel. Only later, when faced with his actions in killing Priam, does Pyhrrus realise that perhaps women aren’t so invisible, and are capable at laughing at him just the same as other men. What’s the famous saying? “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.”
Briseis has grown confident, and grown a rebelliousness and outrage over her life and what has happened to her home and people. She defies Pyhrrus several times, all in ways that could have threatened her life and the women around her. “We women are peculiar creatures. We tend not to love those who murder our families.”
She has grown a particular steeliness: “In my early days in the camp I’d sometimes prayed for things to change. I didn’t pray for that now. There was no need; the growing baby would bring change enough and, good or bad, there’d be no hope of stopping it. You might as well have tried to hold back the tide.”
Running through the entire book there’s a sense of futility, and we wonder what will await Briseis after the wind changes, and she returns to a new home and a new life, with Achilles’ child. The story is told by Briseis what seems to be 50 years in the future, so we know she’s survived, but not yet what she will live through.
A sequel that is on equal footing with its predecessor – a feat not normally achieved – ‘The Women of Troy’ is a brutal look into women’s lives after the glory and the famed battle of Troy.