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Pat Barker: The Women of Troy

If you have read Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls – and you really should have read it before reading this one – you will recall that it tells the story of Briseis. Briseis was from Lyrnessus, a small settlement near Troy, where she was a royal. The town was conquered by the Greeks before they turned their attention to Troy. Briseis was captured by Achilles and became his slave and sex toy. However when Agamemnon has to give up his trophy – Chryseis – to appease the Gods he decides to take Bryseis instead. Achilles is understandably upset and refuses to fight. The Trojans now gain the ascendant. Achilles’ friend Patroclus is killed so he returns to the fray and gets Briseis back.

Just before he dies, Achilles marries off Briseis to Alcimus and this is where we are at the beginning of the book.

The Silence of the Girls, while telling the story of Briseis and other women, follows the action as described in The Iliad. However The Iliad does not cover the more famous events such as the death of Achilles and the Wooden Horse, Indeed it ends before the fall of Troy. Our knowledge of those events comes from other sources, primarily Virgil’s Aeneid but also other classical texts. Barker does describe some of what happens after the fall of Troy in The Silence of the Girls. However, this novel is all set during and after the fall of Troy and therefore much of it (though certainly not all) is entirely speculation by Barker.

The book actually opens as the Greek warriors are hiding out in the Wooden Horse. They are getting thirsty, the latrine buckets are filling up and they are, of course worried whether their cunning plan will succeed. The Greeks have been told they need to do three things to take Troy and one of them is that Achilles’ son must be there. Neoptolemos, known here by his nickname Pyrrhus (= red), is still fairly young but he is in the horse. He is one of the first out. He knows the secret passageways and it is he who gets to Priam’s chamber and, with difficulty, kills the old man, though later boasting of his prowess.

Briseis is not surprisingly not happy that the Greeks have taken Troy though, as the wife of a lord, she is a free woman, unlike most of the others who are now slaves and trophies for the Greeks. When she goes out she is accompanied by Amina as the camp is rough and Alcimus does not want her to be alone. She has relatively little to do. Unike Achilles, Alcimus does not entertain much and nor does he apparently have sex with her. She is, however, pregnant by Achilles.

We follow Briseis and Amina as they wander round the camp. On the beach, they find the dead body of Priam, with crows eating out his eyes. Amina wants to bury him, as the sand is soft but Briseis is opposed. I’d just be doing what women have always done, Amina comments.

Briseis also visits Helen (yes, that Helen), as Briseis’ sister Ianthe was a friend of Helen but has now disappeared. Indeed, she seems to do a tour of legendary Trojan women as she also visits Andromache, Hector’s widow, Hecuba, Priam’s widow and Cassandra, Priam’s daughter. (Though Cassandra does feature here, there is another feminist book about her.)

Helen does not come out well. The whole camp resented his [Menelaus] taking her back. Greek fighters and Trojan slaves united in one thing and one thing only: hatred of Helen. Menelaus had sworn so many times he was going to kill her – the minute he set eyes on her again! Then, that he was going to take her back to Argos and let the women stone her to death – and there’d have been no lack of volunteers. However, according to legend, she survived.

Apart from Briseis’ visits to the various women, there are three main linked plot strands. One is the burial and unburial of Priam (someone – we know who – keeps burying him but the Greeks then dig him up); the second is the behaviour of Pyrrhus who really is not a chip off the old block but an unruly drunken lout; the third is the fact that the Greeks cannot go home because the winds are against them. Clearly, this is because the gods are offended. The Greeks claim not to know why; Briseis says it is glaringly obvious.

Above all, however, as in The Silence of the Girls, the story is about how it is the women who suffer. The men drink, carouse, fight, have athletic contests and have rough sex with the women. The women who are, for the most part enslaved, have to survive, servicing the men both sexually and as domestic servants, bury the dead, look after the sick and injured and, as we see, give birth. Many of them are impoverished and worked to death, particularly if they are deemed to be no longer sexually attractive. And, of course, this is what war does. The men may get killed and injured but, at least in this book, they enjoy killing, they enjoy raping and they enjoy carousing, while the women suffer.

Publishing history

First published 2021 by Hamish Hamilton