This was a lot less about the girls than I was expecting. Which isn’t to say it was bad, just… not the book you anticipate when you read the blurb.
In a large part, the book is still telling the story of The Iliad as Achilles’ story. Yes, we get the majority of that told by Briseis, and a lot more about her own life, her feelings and her views. But a lot of it still revolves around Achilles and his wrath. I mean… it’s The Iliad, so I suppose that’s always going to happen.
That being said, what Barker has done and done very well indeed is make a plausible Achilles’ whose anger is still absolutely present, but in whom we can see the man people love and follow. We see Patroclus through Briseis’ eyes, and we see the complexity of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, as well as both men’s relationships with the women around them. More than anything, I breathed a huge sigh of relief that Barker didn’t try to shoehorn either man into a modern definition of sexuality. Not that I have a thing about that or anything… There’s no definitive picture painted of what their sexuality really is or isn’t, or how they would consider it, mainly because it seems to fit very well into “normal” for the context they’re in. Women and men have different purposes, and both men use both for the purposes they have.
Which of course brings us to Briseis herself. For all that the story the book tells is ultimately Achilles’, it is done while giving us a very intimate character portrait of a woman who exists as possibly the most central object to the entire plot of The Iliad. But in the original, that is pretty much all she is. She’s a trophy, imbued with the pride, vanity and self-worth of two enormous egos. And she remains that here, faithful to the original, but seen through her own eyes, a person beneath all of that. She understands, and laments, her place in the story, while being a whole and complex person it is easy to like and understand. We mourn with her the death of her family, and see her struggle with how to deal with her current situation in life. We see her torn between striving to make the best of her current situation – trying to get Achilles to marry her – while weighed down by her hatred of him and knowing what he has done, but conflicted by her own knowledge that this is the way of the world, and there is little else out there for her but through him. She is brutally aware of what a fall from favour means for her, yet unable truly to give up her emotions and submit to the life she now has.
And in that, in the inner story, is the charm of the book. It isn’t a reframing of the entire Iliad, but instead a commentary on it. A new voice adding information while you watch the familiar story told well.
And it is told incredibly well, particularly in how it deals with the immortal. One of the best, most complex and most satisfyingly strange parts of the book is Achilles’ mother, Thetis, and his relationship with her. Barker skims over a lot of the explicit detail of her immortality, without trying to make her human either. The vagueness only serves to highlight the strangeness, the ethereal otherness of the goddess, and it is incredibly well done. We see and understand how Achilles responds to her too, the mixed feelings, and how this frames much of what he does outside of that relationship.
And a lot of what we are getting from this commentary is like that, and is what I expected and hoped for from the book, the view of women. The story doesn’t revolve around them as I’d expected, but they are visible nonetheless, and their stories told, if only as colour and background. But it is done with a clear awareness that that would have been their lot in that world, and the whole of the story is set with a grim reality in a context of rats and disease and hardship, with the fellowship of women all equally hard done by as not exactly a shining beacon of hope, but a life raft in the storm. They are all stuck, and they know this, and there’s a grim cynicism to much of what they say and do. But they are together, and they suffer together, and help one another through it. I suppose that’s what makes it so good for me… there’s no false hope, no fake joy. Barker clearly understands how awful things would have been for them in so many ways, and makes a story of it that acknowledges their suffering without sinking to pity. Acknowledges their lack of agency without making them simply objects. By giving them voices on their own struggles, it highlights and realises them far better than making them the centre of the story would have – shockingly, non-author’s idea of what a story should have been turns out to be less good than author’s actual story. Who’d have guessed.
By making them not the centre of the story, Barker hammers home the point and the problem, and gives space for those unspoken voices.
Even those we don’t see for long, the women who enter briefly and rarely, are given reality, personality and charm. You instantly see the people they are, and Barker has a talent for portraying them. Likewise, she gives the best Patroclus I’ve ever read – just as complex as her Achilles but in different ways – and a good and interesting cast of the men of the story. They manage not to stray into caricature too, which would seem an easy fate for someone as awful as Agamemnon in his role for this part of the story. But she makes them all real and quickly so, so her world is readily peopled. The only ones who escape this are the gods – of whom we only really see Thetis – and that too is clearly a decision. The gods are remote and unknowable, even when they visit.
I honestly don’t think I have any criticism either. Yes, the story is incredibly grim, but I feel like it needs to be to make the point it wants to make. I would say, if you worry that it’ll be too much for you, I would definitely skip it, as it doesn’t shy away from brutality and the realities of a slave-girl’s life. But I think those brutalities are ones that should be spoken, because The Iliad is a story that implies them all and never speaks them, despite their importance to all that goes on. But it’s not a happy book, and shouldn’t be read if you’re not braced for that.
A comparison to Circe is inevitable, given how close together I read them, but there really is no comparing. Barker’s characters, while vastly more powerless than Miller’s Circe, manage to speak in stronger, more enduring voices than Miller could ever manager for hers. Men may be the centre of Barker’s story, but they aren’t the point, and they fail to dominate the reader’s view or the character’s soul, while Miller’s Circe, who by rights ought to be free from male shackles altogether, cannot help but make men the centre of her world. Barker’s grim reality stands far above Miller’s saccharine apologism. Miller probably has a slight edge in terms of prose, but Barker’s is strong, and when it really matters, when she comes to describe something vital to the plot, she shines very well indeed. Especially given how well this story is told, I feel no need to read The Song of Achilles, because it cannot possibly be as good, as complex or as balanced.
A brilliant book, and one I’m incredibly glad to have read after Circe. I loved it wholeheartedly, could barely put it down, and was totally transported by it the entire way through. It really has been a good couple of years for Classics books…