The BookBrowse Review

Published October 6, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Women of Troy
The Women of Troy
by Pat Barker

Hardcover (24 Aug 2021), 304 pages.
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN-13: 9780385546690
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A daring and timely feminist retelling of The Illiad from the perspective of the women of Troy who endured it--an extraordinary follow up to The Silence of the Girls from the Booker Prize-winning author of The Regeneration Trilogy.

Troy has fallen and the victorious Greeks are eager to return home with the spoils of an endless war--including the women of Troy themselves. They await a fair wind for the Aegean.

It does not come, because the gods are offended. The body of King Priam lies unburied and desecrated, and so the victors remain in suspension, camped in the shadows of the city they destroyed as the coalition that held them together begins to unravel. Old feuds resurface and new suspicions and rivalries begin to fester.

Largely unnoticed by her captors, the one time Trojan queen Briseis, formerly Achilles's slave, now belonging to his companion Alcimus, quietly takes in these developments. She forges alliances when she can, with Priam's aged wife the defiant Hecuba and with the disgraced soothsayer Calchas, all the while shrewdly seeking her path to revenge.




The publisher is unable to provide an excerpt at this time.

Excerpted from The Women of Troy by Pat Barker. Copyright © 2021 by Pat Barker. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Discuss Briseis's relationship with Amina and how it develops throughout the book. Why is Briseis so determined to befriend Amina?
  2. How does Briseis's status as a married woman change her life at camp? What about her pregnancy?
  3. Helle has always been a slave, how does her perspective differ from the women who were previously free?
  4. Throughout the novel, women are underestimated: they are invisible, not seen as a threat, only believed when a man speaks for them. In what ways is this a blessing and a curse? How do the women use this to their advantage?
  5. Motherhood is an important theme in this book. Discuss the various mother-daughter and mother-son relationships both those that are biological and those that are not or are more metaphorical.
  6. The gods are very real to the characters in the book, but they do not appear as characters in the story. How does their belief in the gods influence the behavior of the characters? How do their beliefs differ from modern ones?
  7. Discuss the role of the wind and weather in the book. What do they represent?
  8. How did the night Briseis ran away change her relationship with Achilles? Why did she come back?
  9. Discuss Pyrrhus's punishment. Was it fair? How do you feel about how it played out?
  10. How did the author's use of anachronistic dialogue affect your reading of the book? Why do you think the author might have made that stylistic choice?
  11. Women in the original versions of this story were often only defined by their relationships to men, they were somebody's daughter, or wife, or slave. In what ways does The Women of Troy give these women their own voices?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Doubleday. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

The Women of Troy is the sequel to Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, and it begins right where the last installment left off: continuing Briseis's story just after the Trojan War.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Set in the liminal days following the Trojan War, The Women of Troy follows Briseis, who the reader may have met in this novel's precursor, The Silence of the Girls. Briseis begins that story as a free married woman in Troy and ends up a captive and slave of Achilles, the Greek fighter to whom she was given as a war prize when her city was sacked. Though Pat Barker begins The Women of Troy right where the last book left off, the sequel reads comfortably as a standalone. The two novels together, however, form a fuller picture of the life of Briseis.

At the start of The Women of Troy, Achilles is dead and Briseis is pregnant with his child. Achilles had ensured that in the event of his death, Briseis would marry his loyal follower Alcimus. Now the wife of a Greek, Briseis's social status has risen, though she questions whether her newfound security will remain once her child is born, as she is well aware that her marriage was arranged with the wellbeing of Achilles' child in mind. Briseis and all of the Greek warriors and Trojan captives are grounded at the Greek camp, as the winds have been so high that they have been unable to sail home — which causes some to wonder if the gods are preventing them from leaving.

Without the urgency of war to guide her actions, Briseis wanders aimlessly around camp, trying to come to terms with the destruction of her home. The resulting novel is occasionally static, though that criticism is partially a testament to Barker's skill at evoking the languid, helpless atmosphere that characterizes the Greek camp. During her excursions, Briseis meets notable women from the Iliad: Hecuba, once the queen of Troy, now reduced to Odysseus's captive; Cassandra, whose prophecy foretelling the destruction of Troy nobody believed; Andromache, widow of Hector whose infant child was brutally killed in the final days of the war; and Helen, whose beauty launched the thousand Greek ships to Troy in the first place. Amidst the host of Homeric characters is Barker's own creation, Amina, clearly modeled after Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus who sought to bury her brother Polynices in the Sophocles play named for her. Against all odds (and against Briseis's advice), Amina is determined to bury Priam, the king of Troy, who was brutally slaughtered at the hands of Pyrrhus.

The Women of Troy notably opens with a chapter from the perspective of Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles who arrived at Troy too late to see his father while he was alive, but in time to be part of the group of elite soldiers smuggled into Troy inside the wooden horse (who then opened the gates from the inside, enabling the Greeks to take the city). Pyrrhus's perspective (along with that of Calchas, a Trojan seer who has lived with the Greeks since the beginning of the war) is interspersed throughout the novel — interestingly, in the third-person present tense, compared to Briseis's chapters which are told in first-person past tense. This creates a heightened contrast between Briseis's rational, reflective narration and the frantic, careless actions taken by the men in the story.

But when it focuses on the female characters, The Women of Troy is a quiet, subtle novel. In many ways, this project exemplifies what Barker proved in The Silence of the Girls: that she isn't interested in the battlefield, but rather, the unassuming moments that follow bloodshed. Unfortunately, Briseis's narration never fully justifies itself. With a host of fascinating female characters littering the background, the choice to narrate the novel from the perspective of a character whose story arc could have concluded at the end of the previous volume feels like a missed opportunity (which Barker clearly intends to rectify with the third part of the trilogy, publishing in 2023, which will be told from Cassandra's point of view). But still, Barker's characters are so brilliantly drawn (Pyrrhus in particular is a marvelous addition), and her writing is so sharp that The Women of Troy is a pleasure to spend time with, even when it occasionally falters as a sequel.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

Refinery29
This continuation of the Trojan woman's story feels like another victory for every person who was silenced by history, their story stolen from them.

The Washington Post
Barker's prose has a plain force more powerful than fancy wordsmithing; she makes these long-ago events immediate … More work from one of contemporary literature's most thoughtful and compelling writers is always welcome.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune
[T]he narrative is at its most absorbing when Briseis is on the page and observing the scheming and infighting among the Greek men and the resilience and bravery of the Trojan women. She is a wonderful creation. With luck, Barker is already planning her next move

Chicago Review of Books
Barker's writing is swift, detailed, and immersive… [The Women of Troy] succeeds at making us understand that what they felt—the grief of the Trojan women—cannot have been much different than our own.

New York Times
Barker seems to want to jolt readers out of the detachment that can accompany costume-drama language, plunging us straight into the timeless trauma of women who've witnessed the carnage of war... I'm not quite sure such an obvious verbal nudge was necessary, but what's more convincing is Barker's evocation of Briseis' struggle to survive...As Barker follows 'a thread of meaning through a labyrinth of fear,' her insight and compassion are on full display.

NPR
The Women of Troy is not Barker's best — it can feel simplistic in its understanding of good and evil...It is saved from being totally bleak, however, by Barker's blunt, often funny prose.

Booklist
Briseis is an engaging character, both pragmatic and perceptive, providing keen insight into monsters such as Pyrrhus, as well as the women of Troy.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Barker's blunt, earthy prose strips the romance from Greek mythology, revealing its foundations in murder and oppression, yet she also understands—and conveys—the stark appeal of these ancient stories as she asks us to reconsider them through the eyes of their victims...the inconclusive close of this volume leaves readers hungry to know what happens next to a host of complex and engaging characters. Vintage Barker: challenging, stimulating, and profoundly satisfying.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[A] fiercely feminist take on Homer's Iliad...The author makes strategic use of anachronistic language...to illuminate characters living at the dawn of myth. Barker's latest is a wonder.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Veronica
Brilliant book
First listened to it on Audible and then bought the hard copy. The writing is a tour-de-force. Characters are brought to life and plot developments are twisty. I’d have given it 5 stars but I felt let down by the ending. Still Briseus remarks at one point “looking back years later…”. So she evidently survived.

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Cassandra of Troy

Painting of Cassandra standing in front of burning Troy by Evelyn De Morgan, 1898Like most stories and characters from Greek mythology, the exact origin of Cassandra of Troy is unknown, though she may have first appeared as a character in the Iliad, composed around the 8th century BCE, where she is described as "the fairest of Priam's daughters" and "fair as golden Venus" (in the English translation by Samuel Butler). These are the only references to Cassandra in Homer's tale, but clearly her story developed elsewhere, as now there is a much larger mythos surrounding her character. Details of Cassandra's story vary in different sources, but the blueprint of her narrative remains generally agreed upon.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy during the city's invasion by the Greeks. Though she is often described as very beautiful, Cassandra never married; instead, she was a priestess, who was cursed by Apollo so that her prophecies would never be believed. In some versions of this story, Apollo cursed her for rejecting his sexual advances by spitting in her mouth.

Though Cassandra foresaw the destruction of Troy, she was ignored — in some sources, she was even locked up on orders from her father when her "false" prophecies became a source of irritation. According to The Fall of Troy, which Quintus of Smyrna composed around the 4th century AD, Cassandra even predicted that the Trojan Horse was filled with Greeks. After her prophecy was dismissed, she charged at the Horse with an axe and a torch, but was quickly detained. When the Greeks later emerged from the Trojan Horse, Cassandra took refuge in the temple of Athena, where she was found and raped by Ajax the Lesser.

The end of Cassandra's sad tale is chronicled in The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE. The first play, Agamemnon, tells the story of the titular hero traveling home after the Trojan War with Cassandra in tow as a war prize and concubine. When he arrives, Agamemnon is brutally murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus — which Cassandra predicted, though her prophecy was, as always, dismissed as the ravings of a madwoman. She also predicted her own death, which came shortly after, again at the hands of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. In some versions of the story, Cassandra and Agamemnon had twins, Teledamus and Pelops, also killed by Aegisthus.

Due in part to the proto-feminist thread apparent in Cassandra's narrative (which is, at its core, the story of a woman who is never heard or believed by the men in her life), Cassandra has always been a popular figure and a common focus of Greek mythology retellings. Notable books that expand on Cassandra's story include: Cassandra by Christa Wolf, The Cassandra by Sharma Shields, The Autobiography of Cassandra, Princess & Prophetess of Troy by Ursule Molinaro, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes and Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow.

The Voyage Home, the third novel in Pat Barker's Trojan War series, will be published in 2023, and will be told from the perspective of Cassandra, a character Barker introduces in The Women of Troy.

Cassandra (1898) by Evelyn De Morgan

Filed under Cultural Curiosities

By Rachel Hullett

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