“Silence becomes a woman” could well be the subtitle of this immense novel. Not that women must be silent, can only be silent, but it is a state of being that may well save their life. If they are young, beautiful and fertile, they may survive. Being the daughter of a King, being married to a King will not guarantee it. For this is War. This is the camp of Achilles, and nothing is guaranteed. Except the death of Achillies. Pat Barker’s novel is the story not of heroes with their petty squabbles, their rules of honour, but the depth of what women suffer in war. Briseis is a woman of the royal family, but she is also a woman of Lyrnessus, under long assault as part of the wars of Troy. Part myth, part human, basic and fearsomely real, this is the story of battles, but more the story of the women who had become the slaves of the victors. Barker has written a tremendous novel of choice, of fate, and the sheer grinding ongoing battle to survive as a woman, adopting or being forced into silence.
Briseis is a queen. From an excellent family, chaperoned and veiled though failing to provide royal sons, she has led a charmed life in royal courts. As the novel opens she is running, moving swiftly through the city as the enemy is at the gates, performing the last duties of a daughter in law as it becomes obvious that the city will fall. As she runs to the roof, she witnesses the slaughter of the men of her family, her husband and any boy who may possibly be able to fight. Some women cannot face being captured, and take another way out, but she has the instinct to survive at whatever the cost. The cost is capture and being a prize, a reward for Achilles, legendary warrior, but with a back story of love denied. The sea, the care of Patroclus, the support of the other women in all their variety, could mean that she survives, but at what cost. This is a world of glory and yet basic suffering, when men can play games with the fate of nations, but silence women in every way. Briseis gives voice to all those who subversively survive, who see more than is possible of what motivates beyond courage.
This is a powerful book, not in its length or pretention, as it is the story of people at all levels. Grief, fear and pain are part of it, and there is more than a little death and basic humanity here. There is, however, much to appreciate in its understanding of what motivates people, how they deal with the challenges of not only the great battles but also the grind of life. It is the story of courage and intelligence, miraculous and human forces, and mainly the story of how a woman can exist in the face of momentous events. The narrative alternates between the voice of Briseis and the story of Achilles, but he is not given a voice, just described. This is a superb book of chaos of war, but also the fate of the people who it, in all its human failings. Barker has written a timeless book, which manages to feel contemporary in its appreciation of people and place, yet draws inspiration from an ancient tale.
I really enjoyed this book, if enjoyed is the right word. I admire its sense of place, and yet it has brilliant insight into people. Do not be out off by its subject matter; it can be grim yet it is also wonderful.