The Women of Troy by Pat Barker review – a Troy story for the sisterhood

Moving from Homer to Virgil, Pat Barker’s second feminist reboot of the classics is a stirring adventure set amid a misogynist dystopia

Pat Barker’s previous novel, The Silence of the Girls, retold the Iliad from the point of view of one of its minor characters, Briseis, a Trojan captive squabbled over by the Greek invaders who are Homer’s principal focus. By relentlessly spelling out the original myth’s grislier implications, Barker transformed a supernatural tale of wartime heroism into an ultra-realistic hellscape of female subjugation.

Amid near-unanimous critical approval, a rare note of dissent was struck by the author and classicist Natalie Haynes, whose stealthily territorial Spectator review marked down Barker for her “clunky anachronisms”; Haynes, it turned out, had her own feminist reboot of the Iliad (2019’s A Thousand Ships) in the works. And yes, while The Silence of the Girls can jar, not least in its determinedly 21st-century register (“reaching out”, “a real nightmare”), you couldn’t help feel that Barker had long priced in such quibbles when she set out to remake her source anew simply by dint of being as blunt as possible.

It isn’t only a matter of the pungent dialogue, all “bollockings” and “gobshites”, Homer as told by Father Jack. Witness the opening to her new novel, a sequel drawn from the Aeneid. Airlessly crammed into their wooden horse, the Greeks are biding their time outside the gates of Troy, ready to settle unfinished business; but imagine if someone needed a shit? Such questions underpin all Barker’s effects in these books, and generate horror as well as bathos; I lost count of how many times the narrator, introducing women seized in the city’s ensuing fall, draws attention to bruised necks, wrists and mouths.

The story largely unfolds as the Greeks wait to return home, bickering over the finer points of martial etiquette. Again Briseis narrates, recounting her late teens at a distance of 50 years. Present-tense segments in the third person cut at intervals to male secondary characters who, in their own ways, also find themselves wilting under macho honour codes, most importantly the young fighter Pyrrhus, overshadowed by his father, Achilles, now five months dead.

The Silence of the Girls turned on Briseis’s struggle to retain her selfhood amid the degradation of captivity. Here her plight is more subtle: carrying Achilles’s child, and protected in widowhood by marriage to another Greek warrior, she now essentially finds herself favoured by an unjust system – a privilege that doesn’t come without a cost to her standing among peers who view her as a sellout and collaborator.

While her maid schemes to undo the authority of the occupying forces – one of several flashpoints in a multi-strand plot – Briseis’s feelings are inevitably muddled by the thorny complications of her impending motherhood. Notably considerate of those around her, she’s even sympathetic to what she sees as the “adolescent gawkiness” of Pyrrhus, whose inferiority complex, not to mention the nagging thought of a mocking whisper network of Trojan women ready to expose his tallest tales, fuels the novel’s most chilling scenes.

At a time of renewed scrutiny of how society enables male violence against women, Barker inhabits perpetrator as well as victim. If she risks sentimentality with her portrayal of Pyrrhus, sexually confused and happiest with his horse, it’s something the book’s strenuously earthy register works overtime to avoid: Pyrrhus, laying claim to one of his captives, compares it to “sticking your dick into a greasy bag of chicken bones”.

There’s an unutterably bleak message here about the cycles of violence that follow the use of rape as a weapon of war; in less grim moments, the novel also functions as the stirring tale of a resourceful teenage heroine navigating a misogynist dystopia. True, the narrative throughline isn’t as taut as it was in The Silence of the Girls, but as Barker dangles a succession of unresolved threads (Briseis’s missing sister; a secret baby under threat from a looming massacre of Trojan males), you sense this instalment has been written in the leisurely knowledge that it will form part of a series, her favoured mode. But if, as a standalone, it doesn’t quite match the breakthrough of the last novel, the panorama that beckons looks set to rival Barker’s best.

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

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Anthony Cummins

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