Pat Barker takes us to the end days of the Trojan war, with a re-telling from the point of view of the women there. This is the story of Briseis, and through her, all the women caught up in wars – women with limited power, women with no control over their fates.
Barker tells a story of complex relationships. Briseis is pragmatic, angry but accepting. She goes from being a princess to being a slave to the greatest warrior of them all.. The social hierarchy is overturned, for all the women involved.
The heroes in this book are real people. There’s an air of the WWI officer’s mess in places – Achilles as the doomed fighter pilot? – there are negotiations and arguments. The pressure of the endless war, the endless siege – which keeps the besieging as imprisoned as the besieged- leads to personal feuds getting way out of control. This doesn’t feel anachronistic at all – for me, it showed the universal nature of war. The hospital tent is how I imagine any hospital tent could be – pre-antibiotics, at any rate – conjuring up images of Vera Brittain. She and Hawkeye Pierce would both have felt at home there.
Through it all, the women watch, hang on in there, tolerate, survive. They talk among themselves, they share secrets, they develop complex relationships with their captors. They have children. They pass on their own songs and stories to their foreign offspring. They are the holders of a culture that will otherwise be lost.
I read this book in an olive grove in Croatia, reminded that there was a war there not so very long ago, when rape was deliberately used as a weapon. Maybe myths survive because they are universal?
I thought I knew my Greek myths pretty well, and it was shaming to think that I knew this story, but had never really thought about it from a female perspective. This fits well in the tradition of re-tellings from a different perspective – and Barker brings her knowledge of conditions in WWI to bear here extremely successfully. She shows us the threads that continue from that war that kick-started western literature, through to today’s conflicts. I’m so glad I read this book.
I read this book through NetGalley, so thank you to them.