The Women of Troy opens with warriors crouched, silent, and waiting in the belly of the Trojan Horse, "packed tight as olives in a jar."
The city is breached, and Pyrrhus, son of the dead hero Achilles, hacks his way to Priam, the King of Troy. It is supposed to be his moment of glory, but he fumbles. He manages to kill Priam, clumsily, but not before being shamed and taunted by the old man. Hiding behind an altar and watching his humiliation is a group of women.
It's an apt opening scene: Pat Barker's two novels of the Trojan war, The Women of Troy and 2018's The Silence of the Girls, are about women bearing intelligent witness to the ineptitude and brutality of men. They might be helpless to stop it, but they can at least tell a different story to the one those men tell about themselves.
The Silence of the Girls was based on the events of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Briseis, Achilles's concubine. The Women of Troy takes place largely after the fall of the city, when the victorious Greek warriors are trapped on the beaches, prevented from going home by the anger of the gods, expressed as unrelenting wind.
When the novel begins, Achilles is dead, and Briseis, pregnant with his child, has been married off ("a semen-stained sheet wrapped round my shoulders, breadcrumbs in my hair, feeling sick, smelling of sex") to another of the Greek warriors. The novel draws less on Homer than on Euripides' Trojan Women, which follows the women left bereft after the fall of Troy, and it toys with many of the same themes as the play: captivity, departure, the burial of the dead.
Euripides' play is one long wail of grief; as the classicist Gilbert Murray wrote in a preface to his translation, "The only movement of the drama is a gradual extinguishing of all the familiar lights of human life ..." But there is some tension in the question of what to do when faced with unimaginable and unalterable tragedy. Should the women, for example, try to love their new husbands, the very ones who killed their old ones?
Barker's women too are captives, choosing to live in varying states of compromise, defiance, or resignation. As if to make the contrast between these states clearer, she also introduces another character, one obviously modeled on Antigone, the woman from Greek canon who most clearly embodies a radical adherence to principle in the face of overwhelming pressure. This character, Amina, steals down to the shore, where the defeated body of Priam, the Trojan king, is rotting, and attempts to bury him.
The Women of Troy is not Barker's best — it can feel simplistic in its understanding of good and evil, and the plot is dominated by that "gradual extinguishing" Murray described. It is saved from being totally bleak, however, by Barker's blunt, often funny prose; her language would not be out of place in a Liverpool pub ("bugger," "gobshite").
The novel is immersive and textured: full of smoke from the fires, and sand whipped up by the wind that's keeping the Greek army pinned to the shore. The seashore is littered with the corpses of sea creatures, flung up by the violent waves. It is populated too with ghosts of men, "all the men carried away on that blood-dark tide," empty armor lined up in a shed, empty shirts hung up to dry. A meal abandoned in the shadow of Troy; the city's overgrown, rotting orchards.
In The Women of Troy, Pyrrhus compulsively polishes his dead father's shield, hoping, it seems, to glean a little bit of his father's greatness. It's hard not to think of W.H. Auden's poem "The Shield of Achilles," where the warrior's mother Thetis looks, aghast, at the scene Hephaestus has wrought on the shield to please her son. She looks "For vines and olive trees,/ Marble well-governed cities" but instead sees an urchin alone in a field:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
There's an absolute brutality in this vision of battle — Auden published it in 1952, after the Second World War — that feels akin to Barker's novel. And there's something familiar about the watching presence of Thetis, too, in her fear and her despair. Yet another woman looking on, wishing things were different.