When the Greek Queen Helen is kidnapped by Trojans, the Greeks sail in pursuit, besieging the city of Troy. Trapped in the Greek soldiers’ camp is another captured queen, Briseis. Condemned to be bed slave to Achilles, the man who butchered her family, she becomes a pawn in a menacing game between bored and frustrated warriors. In the centuries after this most famous war, history will write her off, a footnote in a bloody story scripted by vengeful men – but Briseis has a very different tale to tell…
Loaned to me by a friend, this Women’s Prize nomination wasn’t a book I would otherwise have picked up. And what a miss that would have been. I can’t profess to have much knowledge or interest in Greek Mythology prior to reading this but wow! this has certainly wetted my appetite.
A retelling of The Illiad from the perspective of Bresis captured at the fall of Lyrnessus and gifted to Achilles as his war prize. Just 19, she lives a quiet life, on the Greek camp, with the other captured women by day, serving (or servicing) Achilles by night. The women are owned with no status of their own, achieving social standing only through their ‘owner’ and their positioning is fragile, falling from favour and easily becoming shared among the army when no longer required in the bed of their capture.
This book was fascinating, Bresis tells this story and Achilles in her eyes was somewhat inconsistent I think. While he did not treat her badly within the context of the time, her feelings for him were confused, for he had murdered her family and she was now forced into his bed and expected to appreciate her privileged position within the pecking order of female slaves. The story then moves to Achilles perspective when he grieves the loss of Patroclus and his refusal to fight, his thoughts and feelings towards Bresis are largely absent.
For me this was a terrific introduction to the Trojan War and Greek Mythology. It was captivating and accessible. A criticism could be of course that it didn’t empower women enough, I was surprised to find myself liking Achilles and he was not written unsympathetically. Was Bresis simply doing what was required of her to survive, did she have feelings for Achilles, how did he feel about her? And in my mind I can’t help but wonder was this an early case of Stockholm Syndrome?
The book referenced Bresis reflecting that her story was Achilles story and this book, despite professing to be the story of the women, struggled to remove Achilles from centre stage and his portrayal was very much that of a hero. There were moments when the desperate circumstances of women was depicted, choosing death over captivity for example and the sacrifice of a young virgin for Achilles death. But mostly the book conveyed acceptance and it is hard to know now in our increasingly enlightened time how it was, but the story was one I liked a lot and one I would definitely recommend.
Have you read this book? What did you think? And more importantly what should
I read next, what books would you suggest if I liked this one.
About the Author
Pat Barker was born in Yorkshire and began her literary career in ehr forties, when she took a short writing course taught by Angela Carter. Encouraged by Carter to continue writing and exploring the lives of working-class women, she sent her fiction out to publishers. Almost four decades later, she has published fifteen novels, including her masterful Regeneration Trilogy, been made a CBE for services to literature, and won awards, including the Guardian Fiction Prize and the \UK’s highest honour, the Booker Prize. She lives in Durham.