Review 1711: The Women of Troy

I enjoyed very much the novel by Pat Barker that precedes this one, The Silence of the Girls. It was the story of Achilles at Troy told by Briseis, one of the women captured in the siege of Troy and the surrounding countryside. Later, though, when I read a criticism that a novel supposedly about the Trojan women was mostly about Achilles and Patroclus, I had to agree.

At first, The Women of Troy didn’t seem to have much to add. It takes up the story with the Trojan horse and the fall of Troy. Achilles’ son Pyrrhus is the focus of this novel, a young man trying to live up to his father who is very unstable. However, we do see more of the women, and besides the characters Barker has invented, we find out about Hecuba, Andromache, and Cassandra, the royal women.

link to Netgalley

Still, although I found The Women of Troy mildly interesting, I don’t think it added very much to the original story. It covers a period when the Greeks are stranded by a fierce wind on the shores of Troy so cannot go home until they bury Priam’s body and the wind breaks.

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Day 1292: The Silence of the Girls

Cover for The Silence of the GirlsFictionalizing ancient stories and myths seems to be popular now. I have read a few of these novels, including The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s novel about the Trojan War. That novel focused on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Although The Silence of the Girls is also partially about them, it is from a point of view heretofore unexamined, that of the Trojan women taken as slaves by the Greeks during the war. It is narrated mostly by Briseis.

Depending upon how well you know your Iliad, you may remember that Briseis is the woman awarded to Achilles who is later taken away by Agamemnon when he is forced to give up Chryseis. It is Achilles’s forced forfeiture of Briseis that leads him to sulk in his tent while the other Greeks are being slaughtered.

The novel begins with the fall of the Trojan city Lyrnessus, of which Briseis is the young queen. Achilles is called “the butcher” by the Trojans, and the women wait in fear when the citadel falls, knowing their boys will be murdered along with the pregnant women, and girls as young as nine will be raped and enslaved. Briseis is awarded to Achilles, whom she hates and fears.

link to NetgalleyAs the story of the war progresses, Barker builds a nuanced portrait of Achilles, his anger at Agamemnon, his Oedipal relationship with his goddess mother Thetis, his friendship with Patroclus. Although Achilles is not a sympathetic character, Briseis eventually becomes conflicted about him.

This is an interesting and affecting novel. It is completely unlike the only other novel I have read by Barker, but it makes me want to continue seeking out her books.

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Day 1085: House of Names

Cover for House of NamesColm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.

The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.

Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.

link to NetgalleyOrestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.

And then there is Electra.

Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.

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Day 269: The Song of Achilles

Cover for The Song of AchillesMadeline Miller has attempted a difficult task in The Song of Achilles–to make the story of Achilles, Patroclus, and the Trojan War more understandable to a modern audience. To some extent she succeeds, but in some cases I think she interjects too modern a sensibility into the ancient tale.

I have never been a big fan of Achilles. The image of him sulking in his tent because of pique while the Greeks get slaughtered is not a pleasant one. But for the benefit of those who are not familiar with The Iliad, if there are any, I will leave that part of the tale for them to discover.

The novel is narrated by Patroclus, who is exiled as a boy after accidentally killing another boy. In Miller’s novel this gives him a horror of killing and he never learns to fight–the first instance of that modern sensibility I mentioned. Not only is there no evidence in the Greek myths that Patroclus didn’t fight, there is evidence to the contrary.

In exile, Patroclus is brought up with Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis, and Miller makes the interesting choice of having the gods and goddesses be characters in the novel, just as they are in ancient stories. Patroclus and Achilles become close companions and eventually lovers.

Here again is where modern sensibilities come in, not because the two were lovers–they almost certainly were–but in the way she treats the relationship. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m fairly sure that such relationships were rather common, and I’ve read somewhere that in some armies they were encouraged because the friends fought better for each other. Yet here, the two hide their relationship, and Thetis despises Patroclus from the first. In fact, in The Iliad, the relationship is implied but not commented upon, more as if it is accepted.

I don’t want to sound too particular, though, because almost despite myself I was drawn in and ultimately touched, not by Achilles as much as by Patroclus.

In a class discussion of The Iliad years ago, when the students were commenting on Achilles’ behavior, the instructor made it very clear that despite what we may think of him today, to the ancient Greeks he was indisputably a hero. So, modern sensibilities come in again, as Patroclus worries that the Greeks will begin hating Achilles because he refuses to fight, and they do.

To a great extent, most of the characters in the novel are one- or two-dimensional–Agamemnon is stupid and brutish, Odysseus is wily and clever, and so on. Only a few characters are more fully developed. But then, the narrator is Patroclus, and his life revolves around Achilles, who is unbearably proud and full of himself. Yes, I still don’t like Achilles. To Miller’s credit, I don’t think I’m supposed to. Despite my caveats, though, I enjoyed the novel and am looking forward to reading another book by Miller.