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Pat Barker’s ‘The Women of Troy’ continues her brilliant reassessment of the Trojan War

From her early novels about working-class women in industrial northern England, through and beyond her Booker Prize-winning Regeneration trilogy, a blistering portrait of soldiers shattered by World War I, Pat Barker’s work has been centrally concerned with the role violence plays in our lives. The grim lot of women in wartime is foregrounded in her new novel, “The Women of Troy,” which continues a feminist reassessment of the Trojan War begun in “The Silence of the Girls” (2018).

The narrator, Briseis, was enslaved to Achilles in the first book after he killed her husband and brothers before the siege of Troy. Now, in the wake of the city’s capture and Achilles’s death, she is free and married to one of his loyal followers because she is pregnant with Achilles’s child. “I was the casket that contained the crown jewels,” she remarks. “As a person, I didn’t count at all.” She knows there are worse fates. Trojan princess Cassandra was raped in Athena’s temple as the city fell. Women too old to bear children were sent to slave markets to be “picked up cheap and worked to death.” Around the camp, Briseis sees women scrabbling “for scraps around the cooking fires,” groped while they serve dinner, malignantly toyed with by soldiers as a prelude to gang rape.

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Yet “The Women of Troy” also reckons with the scarifying effect of violence on men. It opens “inside the horse’s gut: heat, darkness, sweat fear,” as Achilles’s 16-year-old son, Pyrrhus, and other Greek soldiers wait in silence to see if the Trojans will roll the enormous wooden horse inside the city walls. Barker, always adept at evoking brute physical discomfort and its psychic toll, takes Pyrrhus’s worry that his roiling gut means he’ll be the first to use the latrine bucket as a window into his underlying fear that he will never live up to the reputation of his father: glorious Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior.

Pyrrhus is the novel’s most interesting character after Briseis, ensnared by the imperative to dominate and subdue as surely as she and the other women are trapped in servitude and submission. His desperate need to prove himself makes him exceedingly dangerous. His actions over the course of the final battle for Troy and its long aftermath are brutal and deadly; Barker does not ask us to forgive Pyrrhus, simply to understand him. The same goes for the soldiers Briseis sees playing football with a human head; she knows they are restless and anxious, waiting for the gale-force wind that prevents the Greek ships from sailing home to subside and wondering what offense against the gods keeps it blowing day after day.

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“The Women of Troy” takes place in the uneasy interregnum between the Greeks’ victory and their departure. The plot is driven by efforts to blame someone for the unfavorable wind and to identify the Trojan who clandestinely buried the corpse of King Priam, clumsily hacked to death by Pyrrhus and left to be picked over by crows. For the crows, Briseis sardonically observes, war “only ever meant food. They didn’t care who won or lost; their day always ended well.”

Barker’s prose has a plain force more powerful than fancy wordsmithing; she makes these long-ago events immediate. “Kill all the men and boys, impregnate the women,” thinks Briseis, linking her unwanted pregnancy in a mythic time to present-day ethnic cleansing: “They meant to erase an entire people.” The blasted Trojan landscape — once-fertile farmland scarred by “chariot wheels and the tramp of marching feet,” a beach strewn with dead sea creatures — reminds us that the devastation we wreak on the Earth is by no means a modern phenomenon.

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Violence is an eternal component of the human experience, Barker suggests, a tool for achieving power and status that we seize eagerly and relinquish reluctantly. That is certainly Briseis’s view. She’s a pragmatist who rolls her eyes at vengeance-obsessed Trojan queen Hecuba’s refusal to understand the reality of her new, enslaved condition. She’s appalled by the “solitary, joyless rectitude” of another enslaved Trojan who insists on covertly burying Priam and performing funeral rites at the grave.

Briseis has chosen to adapt and survive in a world where “the only thing that mattered . . . was power.” That doesn’t mean she thinks this is right; she repeats with bitter irony the judgment that Pyrrhus had “a good war” and the characterization of herself as Achilles’s “prize of honour” — “phrases that blister my tongue.” She cautiously nurtures and protects the enslaved people sequestered in the women’s quarters, and when she absolutely must she risks her life and privileges to pay what she sees as a personal debt. She is a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless.

The novel closes with the Greek ships finally able to embark, carrying Briseis and her companions to new lives in unknown lands. Asides throughout reveal that Briseis is telling this story from a vantage point 50 years on and hint that there will be another volume to chronicle her life after Troy. More work from one of contemporary literature’s most thoughtful and compelling writers is always welcome.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”

The Women of Troy

By Pat Barker

Doubleday. 304 pp. $28

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