An accomplished hand at historical fiction respins the final weeks of the Trojan War.
For her 14th novel, Booker Prize–winning Barker plucks her direction from the first line of the Iliad: “Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles....” The archetypal Greek warrior’s battle cries ring throughout these pages, beginning on the first. The novel opens as Achilles and his soldiers sack Lyrnessus, closing in on the women and children hiding in the citadel. Narrating their terrifying approach is Briseis, the local queen who sees her husband and brothers slaughtered below. She makes a fateful choice not to follow her cousin over the parapet to her death. She becomes instead Achilles’ war trophy. Briseis calls herself “a disappointment...a skinny little thing, all hair and eyes and scarcely a curve in sight.” But in the Greek military encampment on the outskirts of Troy, she stirs much lust, including in the commander Agamemnon. So far, so faithful to Homer. Barker’s innovation rests in the female perspective, something she wove masterfully into her Regeneration and Life Class trilogies about World War I. Here she gives Briseis a wry voice and a watchful nature; she likens herself as a mouse to Achilles’ hawk. Even as the men boast and drink and fight their way toward immortality, the camp women live outwardly by Barker’s title. Their lives depend on knowing their place: “Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.” Barker writes 47 brisk chapters of smooth sentences; her dialogue, as usual, hums with intelligence. But unlike her World War I novels, the verisimilitude quickly thins. Her knowledge of antiquity is not nearly as assured as Madeline Miller’s in The Song of Achilles and Circe. Barker’s prose is awkwardly thick with Briticisms—breasts are “wrinkled dugs” or “knockers.” And she mistakenly gives the Greeks a military field hospital, which was an innovation of the Romans.
A depiction of Achilles’ endless grief for Patroclus becomes itself nearly endless.