It’s always the women and children who pay such a high price when “great men” decide to play the game of thrones. Or so the great GRRM once wrote.
I’ve been immersed in all things Greek mythology lately, and I feel like its all been leading up to where it would always inevitably culminate: the epic Trojan War. Poems, novels, music and movies have been written about the ten-year siege of Troy, and of the notorious Helen, also known as the face that launched a thousand ships.
This book is unique in that it tells the story from the perspective of the women who were sold into slavery at the Greek camps when their cities fell to the mighty Achilles and his legendary army of Myrmidons. It focuses on one woman in particular: Briseis, former queen and now slave to Achilles, the man who burned her city and killed her husband and brothers in the process.
So, these reviews always seem to go on longer than I intend them to. I’ve yet to develop the skill of editing my own work, and I probably never will. But I will try to focus on two main themes for this review, for the sake of being “brief”.
The Spoils of War
I’ve always had a weird fascination for reading about war times, not because I’m particularly interested in weaponry and warfare, but because I’m fascinated by its effect on the people who are left behind. I don’t care much about how the war was won, because for me there’s no such thing. When a country goes to war with another country because diplomacy has failed them in every way, everyone loses.
It always breaks my heart to read about the very human stories behind every major war. And its always the same thing, over and over again, throughout the pages of history: the lost promise of youth, children growing up way before their time, young men who never lived long enough to fulfil the dreams their parents had for them.
Its the story of women who have lost fathers, brothers, husbands and sons; women who were never given the opportunity to fight the battles when they were every bit as invested in the outcome. I think if any government leader should ever take it into their head to go to war over something, they should take a good hard look at the women in their family, and to think about all that they would suffer, and decide whether its worth it.
This is the great thing about this book, because it really highlights all of that, and also how the women of the Trojan War were stripped away from their sense of self, from their identities and individualities, from everything that makes them a person, and were instead relegated into the role of objects.
It brings into stark relief all the humiliations and degradations that these women suffered in the hands of so-called heroes: Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon (although I’ve always thought of him as sort of a prick), Nestor, and even Odysseus. This is an important book to read, and an important point to make, during these times of change when women everywhere are fighting for equality in every arena. Its a call to arms, a message that we will no longer allow this to happen. And for all of that, I salute you, Pat Barker.
Love is Love is Love
To end this review on a more positive note, I’d like to revisit the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Despite numerous research into the matter, historians are still unable to agree on whether these two were lovers or just really really really close friends. After reading about them in Madeline Miller’s fabulous book, The Song of Achilles, and again here, I am of the opinion that at the end of the day, it makes no bloody difference.
Whether it was the love between brothers, friends or lovers, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is the kind of love that is strong enough to transcend labels, powerful enough to turn the tide of the Trojan War and so powerful that, in my heart, I am sure that it even defied death.
The Greeks, for all their brutal ways, had no hang-ups whatsoever when it comes to sexuality. Hercules had both male and female lovers, it did not make him any less of a legend in their eyes. I love reading about these stories, and I particularly love revisiting the story of Achilles and Patroclus, because it gives me hope.
It gives me hope that if a love like that can exist, there is a future for all of us to look forward to, one in which wars cease to be a possibility, and a world where you can just be free to love who you love, regardless of class, race, age or gender. And that is the kind of ideology that IS worth fighting for.
Briseis came to a conclusion towards the end of the book that, for all that she tried to defy and escape him, she was ultimately just another spoke in the wheel, just another supporting character to Achilles’ story. But that doesn’t mean that she does not get to try to write her own story and her own future.
Ultimately, this is what this book is about. We are all free to make our own choices, chart our own destinies and write our own stories. You don’t need to be a hero. You just need to be a person with hopes, dreams and, more importantly, the capacity to love…because long after all the songs have been written about battles and triumphs, its the human tale of love that will endure.
Fabulous book! 4 out of 5 stars.