Troy has fallen. Its warriors, even its unborn male babies, are all dead. The mutilated body of the sacked city’s king, Priam, has been left lying in the dunes by the Greek camp, stinking and covered all over – as Pat Barker’s narrator horribly notes – with “flies, thousands of them … like a fuzz of black bristles”.
Now somebody has tried to bury Priam. The Greek Pyrrhus, who hacked him to death at the foot of an altar, is displeased. He wonders who could have attempted this act of respect. It must have been a Trojan. But which one? Alcimus, Pyrrhus’s chief lieutenant, points out that there are “only two Trojans in the camp”. He is thinking of Calchas, the priest, and Helenus, the Trojan prince who – under torture – revealed the information that enabled the Greeks to enter the city. But Alcimus is wildly, blindly wrong. There are plenty of other Trojans in the Greek camp, hundreds of them. These other Trojans, though, are of no account. To Pyrrhus and Alcimus they are doubly invisible because they are slaves and because they are women.
Published in 2018, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls was a rewriting of the plot of the Iliad from the point of view of a captive queen, Briseis, over whose possession Agamemnon and Achilles fell out. It wasn’t an easy task Barker had set herself. Achilles – terrifying, charismatic and doomed to an early death – is hard to sideline. Through Briseis’s clear eyes the Greek base, peopled by fighting men and captive women, was revealed to be a “rape camp”. But, as Briseis herself remarks, “A song isn’t new merely because a woman’s voice is singing it.” The story remained, stubbornly, one mainly about men. In this sequel, though, Barker has stepped free of the masculinist epic tradition. Briseis is still the narrator, but Barker has left the Iliad behind, with its insistence on the glory and the pathos of warfare. The Women of Troy draws mainly on a very different source – Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women. This is a story not of conflict but of its aftermath.
It is grim. The words “filthy” and “stained” recur. Even the sea is foul, yellowish-grey and full of dead things. War is dirty and ugly and smelly and Barker never lets us forget it. Men may set out in the morning oiled and glorious as Phoebus Apollo, their chariots glittering, but at nightfall “ash-grey men driving dirty horses would emerge from the clouds of dust”.
Barker has been examining the human wreckage of war for decades. In Regeneration, set in a psychiatric ward during the first world war, she looked at the psychological damage done. In Life Class she wrote about the ghastly facial wounds by which ex-servicemen were marked. Although she is mainly concerned in this new novel with the women on the losing side, she is also alive to the legacy the victors pass on to their children. Pyrrhus is the son of the great Achilles. English-speaking readers know him best from the speech Hamlet gives the Player King, in which Pyrrhus is a larger-than-life ogre described as “horrid” and “hellish”, bulked out by the “coagulate gore” of slaughtered innocents, with eyes like carbuncles. In Barker’s telling he is a much smaller and more ridiculous figure, a nervous 16-year-old sociopath whose crass cruelties are driven by the knowledge that he can never live up to his father’s reputation. Inside the wooden horse, Pyrrhus is appalled to feel his bowels loosening. “Oh my god, he needs a shit.”
A number of female writers have revisited Troy in the past few years. Madeline Miller dwelt on the love between Achilles and Patroclus; Natalie Haynes wrote about mortal women but also about the female gods. In Barker’s account there is no romance – only more or less endurable connections between a slave and her owner – and no divinity. When characters talk about the way the Greek warriors, raping Trojan woman on the altars, have desecrated Troy’s temples, Barker’s Briseis thinks: “Bugger the temples. What about the women?” This is the Trojan war not only demythologised but stripped bare of every vestige of the heroic or numinous.
Barker’s language in this new book is plain, crude and modern. Occasionally it lapses into bathos, as when Briseis remarks that the teenage slaves in Pyrrhus’s compound “had come together as a group”, as though reporting on the morale of a netball team. Mostly, though, its crudeness generates energy. On Pallas Athena: “Guardian of cities? Is that a joke? Let’s bloody hope she’s not guarding this city.” On Briseis’s wedding to Alcimus: “a semen-stained sheet wrapped round my shoulders, breadcrumbs in my hair, feeling sick, smelling of sex”. On Helen, and the necklace of bruises Menelaus had given her: “He’d throttled her as he was fucking her. As you would.”
Blunt and brutal, this kind of language fits with the intent, shared by Barker and her spokesperson, Briseis, to tell truths about violence and slavery without the prettiness of costume drama or the mollifying varnish of a literary high style. Briseis only cries once, not at a moment of exalted drama or noble sorrow, but when she happens on a dead Trojan’s never-finished lunch: “an unknown man’s teethmarks in a slab of smelly old cheese”. Only in noticing the natural world does she approach a stark kind of poetry. “The sun rises, as small and hard and cold as a stone.”
The plot revolves around the not-burying and eventual cremation of King Priam. The person who attempted to bury him in the sand is a character invented by Barker, a Trojan woman, religious in a way Briseis is not, who courts martyrdom. Pyrrhus is found to have offended against the laws of hospitality and receives a kind of comeuppance. Calchas, the priest, whose point of view we sometimes share, loses his privileged status as reverence for the gods unravels along with military discipline. A slave is pregnant and her boy baby must be hidden. Helen – in a surprising and effective shift away from the legend – is reimagined as an artist, with the requisite ice chip in her heart, living solely in, and for, her tapestry-making work. The main narrative drive, though, is towards the predestined end, when the wind changes, and the Trojan women leave, loaded along with the “other cattle” on to their owners’ ships.
These novels began as a fictional treatment of genocidal rape. Barker was writing in awareness of the tens of thousands of women raped during the Bosnian conflict. For them, as for the women of Troy, the assault was not only on their bodies but on their nation. Their babies would be their enemies’ offspring. Briseis remarks that the Greeks “mean to erase an entire people”. In this second volume, as Barker takes us deeper into the female world of the Greek camp, the theme of sexual assault takes second place to that of enslavement. Briseis recalls lying legs spread beneath Achilles, only days after she had seen him kill her brothers, and thinking this was the worst thing ever – the very bottom of the pit. Now, she says, she knows there is far, far worse. She is a trophy woman. She has value. By comparison with the old women whom the slave traders won’t take, the ones scavenging around the cooking fires in competition with the feral dogs, she is lucky. But when a person is turned into a commodity, she risks becoming as near to nothingness as a chewed bone.
Clearly and simply told, with no obscurities of vocabulary or allusion, this novel reads sometimes like a retelling for children of the legend of Troy, but its conclusions are for adults – merciless, stripped of consoling beauty, impressively bleak.
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include Fabulous (4th Estate). The Women of Troy by Pat Barker is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.