My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction, myth retelling
Published by Penguin Audio, 2018.
The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.
When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.
Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.
I am in love. Nearly everything about this book worked for me. While I do think that parts of that are due to the fact that it hits a lot of sweet spots of mine, I also think it really is an incredible achievement. I adore the story of the Trojan War though – so this was probably always going to work for me.
Pat Barker sets out to give a voice to Briseis, whose importance in the Trojan War cannot be overstated but who remains mostly voiceless in the Iliad. Briseis narrates the vast majority of the book and I found her voice compelling and incredibly well realized. The audiobook narrator (Kristin Atherton) was pitch-perfect in a way that wonderfully added to my listening experience.
Perhaps my favourite part of this book I adore for many reasons is Barker’s treatment of agency here. Agency and fate are at the heart of the original myth and I think this is really where her retelling shines. Obviously, Briseis’ agency is taken away and it is the thing she suffers most from. So much that the rapes and the humiliation and all the other horrible things happening to her seem to not even register for her (which I find very interesting as a narrative choice!). But even Achilles has very little agency in the grand scheme of things (an idea that Barker very heavily leans into and that I found very interesting). And when he does have choices he consistently does the wrong thing – until his agency is taken away again.
Briseis is a wonderfully realized character: I adore that Barker allows our first glimpse of her to be an ambivalent one, she has unkind thoughts and seems fairly self-involved while also trying to be a good person and loving her brothers. I find that a lot more interesting than perfect characters. Still, overall Briseis shows kindness and strength in the way she deals with her experience and her relationships to the other women in the Greek camp are beautifully done. Briseis’ part is told in first person and as such we follow her intimately in a way that Achilles’ third person narration does not achieve (a brilliant narrative decision). I appreciated this choice a lot: in a way Achilles is the one who remains voiceless and whose more humanizing behaviour is forgotten and only his awfulness is remembered (in this fictional universe where the Iliad is a historical text).
In short, I loved this. A lot. I find it a super interesting text in the way it deals with feminist issues in a way that more closely mirrors traditional myths and I adore that Barker lets the main characters behave in way that is maybe more unconventional for the modern reader but that makes perfect sense in the (pseudo-) historical context.
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
- The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
- Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
- Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
- My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (review)
- Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
- Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
- Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (DNF)
- Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
- Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
- Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)