As bracing as such revisionism can be, Barker’s rewriting of Homer had crippling defects. The characterization was disappointingly cursory; the depiction of Homer’s men, in particular, displayed little of the empathetic shadings so admirable in the earlier books—as if the narrative inversion alone were sufficient, in Barker’s eyes, to make her points about gender and violence. The handling of the story’s mythic period and milieu was equally perfunctory, showing little of the intimacy with or mastery of mood and setting that can make fiction about the past persuasive: Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian,” say, or Mary Renault’s Alexander the Great trilogy—or, for that matter, Barker’s own novels of the First World War. Between the fuzzy grasp of detail and a telltale tendency to wear its research on its sleeve, the book never gave you the sense of being inside this vanished world. (To whom, precisely, does Briseis need to explain that “by long tradition, the laying-out of the dead is women’s work”?) And Barker never solved a notorious problem of historical fiction: how to make her characters speak. The prose yo-yoed between Academia.edu (“My brothers had become liminal in their very nature”) and a strained casualness that could inadvertently veer into the Borscht Belt (“Well, with a sea goddess for a mother, what do you expect?”).
It’s possible to see how all this was meant to serve Barker’s anti-heroic project. These men, she wanted you to know, were just guys, after all—and not very nice guys, at that—no different from any others, whether on the killing fields of Ypres or on the streets of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The problem is that they are different. Barker’s deliberately workaday tone, so effective in her contemporary novels, never meshed with the legendary elements of the tale she was telling, complete with its gods, ghosts, and miracles. However problematic some of the Iliad’s attitudes may seem today, the majesty of its rhetoric and the pathos of its drama remain overwhelmingly powerful. Much of that power, it is worth remembering, derives from the utterances of its female characters. The epic ends with a trio of women’s voices—those of Hector’s wife, his mother, and Helen of Troy—lifted in lamentation.
“The Silence of the Girls” was one of a number of recent novels—including Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” and Madeline Miller’s “Circe”—to take on Homer’s epics, challenging their assumptions by telling the old tales from a female perspective. A generation earlier, there was the East German writer Christa Wolf’s “Cassandra” (1983), which deftly repurposed Homer’s Trojan tales as a parable at once feminist and political, using the myths to explore subjects such as the police state and censorship.
Barker’s “The Women of Troy” joins that tradition but faces a daunting problem: the story of the fall of Troy has already been subjected to feminist revisionism. The brutal tale that her new novel relates, about the horrific aftermath of the sack of the city, including the enslavement and degradation of its women, was re-narrated from a female point of view in 415 B.C.—the year that Euripides’ “Troades” (“The Trojan Women”) premièred.
By then, the playwright was already celebrated, even notorious, for his shocking depictions of women in extremis: Medea, the discarded wife who slays her children to punish her ingrate of a husband; Phaedra, the queen whose forbidden lust for her stepson drives her to accuse him of raping her. These and other characters cemented Euripides’ reputation as a kind of Tennessee Williams of his day, a master of portraying tormented female psyches. But “The Trojan Women” was radically different from those earlier, plot-driven plays. Not unlike Barker’s “Union Street,” each of whose seven sections is devoted to a single woman’s wrenching story, Euripides’ play takes the form of a pageant of female pain: a succession of tableaux, each dominated by a woman of the Trojan royal house who has suffered at the hands of the invaders.
The play is set on the day after the Greeks take Troy; the women are now just property, prizes to be handed out to this or that victorious Greek. Hecuba, the queen, goes to the wily Odysseus; her daughter-in-law Andromache, Hector’s widow, to Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus; and her daughter Cassandra, a prophetess doomed never to be believed, to the victorious general Agamemnon. There is not so much a plot as a progressive deepening of the misery. Hecuba learns that her youngest daughter has been sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles; Andromache learns that her infant son will be thrown from the walls of Troy. Then the play is over, its chorus of enslaved Trojan women bewailing the fact that their once great city will be utterly erased from history—“nameless.”
Hardly. Barker’s own example is one of many that have shown how successfully a writer of one gender can inhabit characters of another; the undeniable power of Euripides’ female-dominated play resulted in a long line of adaptations by both men and women, from the Roman playwright Seneca, in the first century, to Jean-Paul Sartre, in the mid-twentieth. More recently, “Troades” has been reworked to comment on modern warfare (Christine Evans’s 2009 fantasy drama, “Trojan Barbie”) and the Syrian humanitarian crisis (“Queens of Syria,” a 2013 play in which a group of refugees tell their stories à la Euripides). This crowded tradition of adaptation is both a blessing and a curse for anyone interested in remixing those memorable female voices again, illuminating new possibilities while also making it that much harder to hew too closely to the original. How much is left for those women to say?
Like its predecessor, “The Women of Troy” is narrated by Briseis, who, we learn, was once intimate with the Trojan royals, giving her a special perspective on the characters whose stories she will now tell. (As a young girl, she was sent to live in Troy and became something of a pet of the royal family.) When the novel opens, Achilles has been dead for months, and Briseis is now married to a powerful Greek. A slave no longer, she nonetheless feels deeply for the Trojan women, who are new to the humiliations to which she had long ago become inured, from the nightly rapes to the demeaning household tasks that these former royals must now perform. The male antagonist who occupies center stage is the young Pyrrhus, who has arrived on the scene just before the Greeks’ victory, in which he plays a particularly nasty role, butchering Priam as the old man pathetically struggles to defend his family and his realm.
Pyrrhus sometimes appears in Greek literature as a callow but good-hearted youth. Barker has the excellent idea of making him a teen-age bully whose swagger barely conceals an inferiority complex; he is haunted by the father whom he never knew and whose glorious reputation he can never live up to. When “The Women of Troy” opens, Pyrrhus is sitting inside the Trojan horse, waiting for the final assault to begin, “feeling all the time like an imposter, a little boy who’d been allowed to stay up late.” The youth’s anxieties about his masculine authority motivate his harshness toward the Trojan women, from which much of the novel’s plot will flow.
There are also some fine and original touches in Barker’s reimagining of the mythic women. In the Iliad, Helen of Troy (whom even the Trojans can’t bring themselves to blame for the war, so seductive is her allure) is a rather forlorn figure: full of regret about her past, and stuck with the feckless if gorgeous Paris, she spends her time weaving a tapestry that illustrates the war she has brought about. Barker’s novels paint the Greek queen as a cool customer with an eye on the main chance and few illusions about either men or women. In “The Silence of the Girls,” Briseis notices that Helen has not yet placed herself in the still-unfinished tapestry: “She won’t know where to put herself till she knows who’s won,” one of the other enslaved women snaps back. In “The Women of Troy,” Helen is shopping around for mood-altering drugs in anticipation of her imminent reunion with her cuckolded husband, Menelaus.
The most fully realized of Barker’s Trojan women—one you wish had a bigger role—is Hecuba. Andromache is too noble to be truly gripping; Cassandra too nutty. (Even her mother has doubts about her: “People always say it’s divine frenzy. . . . I think she just makes things up to suit herself.”) But the fierce Hecuba—a character who in the Iliad declares her wish to eat Achilles’ liver raw—is catnip to Barker, whose portrayal of her has something of the humor and the vividness that distinguish “Union Street.” Here, the harrowed widow of myth and drama is profane (“You always were a streak of piss,” she barks at a svelte priest) and irreligious (“leaving things to the gods doesn’t bloody well work”). She holds your attention whenever she appears—far more than the bland Briseis ever does.
That the selfish Helen and the crusty Hecuba, rather than the ostensibly more sympathetic victims Andromache or Briseis, are Barker’s most successful creations tells you something about the dangers of writing fiction with a high-minded agenda. And here, as before, her attempt to demystify myth in order to communicate her message about male brutality and female suffering is hobbled by an awkward treatment of the story’s historical and legendary elements. Too often, Briseis sounds like the voice-over from a History Channel special: “As a woman living in this camp, I was navigating a complex and dangerous world.”
“The Women of Troy” really works only when Barker forgets about the ancient models for her story. Much of the novel is taken up with a plot arc that appears in none of the traditional tales about the fall of Troy: the horrible Pyrrhus issues a decree forbidding anyone to bury Priam’s body—a dreadful violation of religious proprieties. One of the enslaved Trojans, a young woman named Amina (Barker has a bizarre penchant for pinching the names of her characters from opera), disobeys the decree, risking her life in order to give the old man a proper religious burial. Eventually, Briseis is drawn into Amina’s illegal doings, with potentially dire consequences. If this seems familiar, it’s because it’s the plot of Sophocles’ “Antigone.” Barker’s characters may sound tinny compared with Sophocles’—Amina’s “You can’t just overrule the laws of god” isn’t a patch on Antigone’s great speech of defiance—but the author’s importation of the tragic plot is a clever means of infusing all the abjection and the moralizing with some genuine drama.