I love the retelling of ancient myths if done well. As a result, I am a fan of Madeline Miller’s novels Circe and The Song of Achilles, and I listen again and again to Stephen Fry’s podcasts ‘Mythos’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Troy’. It was just a matter of time before I picked up Barker’s marvellous account of Achilles’ capture of Briseis, a Trojan queen less familiar to us than famous Helen.
Barker’s publishing career began in her forties. Now in her late seventies, she has garnered numerous awards for her books including the Booker and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She has been awarded a CBE.
Her writing is straightforward and accessible. The voice of Briseis sounds alarmingly familiar to the modern ear. We first hear it as she and her household of woman, crammed into a smelly room, wait for the Greeks to win the city and take them captive. Her opening paragraph leaves us in no doubt about how she feels about her prospective victor, and how she wishes us to view him.
Achilles chooses Briseis as a prize following his successful sacking of Lyrnessus. She spends much of her time sitting in a cupboard until each evening she is called to climb into Archilles’ bed. Her only escape from her servitude is an occasional dip in the ocean, into which she sometimes considers walking to the horizon until drowned.
‘Great Achilles. Brilliant Achilles, shining Achilles, godlike Achilles…How the epithets pile up. We never called him any of those things; we called him ‘the butcher.’
A fight between Achilles and his commander Agamemnon, results in the transfer of Briseis as a chattel to the more senior of the two. Her status is confirmed during the argument, where she is referred to as ‘it’. Treated less well in this king’s retinue, Briseis lives a stifled life, weaving by day and lying as close to a crack in the wall as possible at night in order to find fresh air.
What we realise hasn’t changed from this time to ours is the tendency to see women as the cause of men’s problems.
‘Sometimes Helen would go into the inner room even before I left and then I’d hear the chattering of the loom, the rattle as the shuttle flew to and fro. There was a legend – it tells you everything really – that whenever Helen cut a threat in her weaving, a man died on the battlefield. She was responsible for every death.’
In Barker’s skilful hands we accept without thought that Achilles’ mother is a god, and that his armour is god-made. We don’t think twice when it is suggested the plague that devastates the Greek army is visited upon them by Apollo as a result of a priest’s prayer, or that the dead body of Hector, despite brutal treatment every day in camp, is returned to flawless condition every morning by the gods.
She depicts the brutal treatment of women both in military rape camps as well as everyday life in both Trojan and Greek society. Although the treatment of women is appalling, Briseis’ refusal to accept subjugation and her courage in the face of constant fear brings a nobility to her life that makes it possible to bear the story. Barker’s genius lies in her ability to make us see, rather than to turn our heads, overwhelmed by Briseis’ reality.
(And by the way, I enjoy trying to guess which words an author particularly enjoys using at a point in time. My guess is Barker was keen on ‘liminal’ during the writing of this book. See how many you find.)