Sometimes it’s impossible to read the blurb on a book without wondering if you’ve read the same book as the gushing reviewers.
This book is a mess and I don’t understand why it’s received so much praise.
if you’re going to retell the most famous story in European literature, from the perspective of a minor but significant character, the end result should at least give us an insight into that character, and reposition the story so the reader sees it differently. Whether intentional or not, it’s going to offer a critical reading of the original text. All the other retellings, critiques and rearrangements of this story from Herodutus onwards are ghosting in the background and should be holding the writer and critic to account.
How dim witted would you be in the 21st century, if you read the Iliad and didn’t realise it’s a brutal story set in a brutal world where brutal men do brutal things? And perhaps more problematic, how badly would you misread the poem if you thought it isn’t aware of this or thought it presented Achilles as a two dimensional marvel comic hero?
Retelling the story from the perspective of Briseis creates its own technical problems. Much of the Iliad happens where she can’t see it. An Iliad without Hector. While we must sympathise with her situation, that’s not the same as finding her character interesting or believable. A modern sensibility imported into the past simply proves how intolerable the past would be for a modern sensibility: the harder task, to evoke an ancient mindset, done honestly, would present an intolerable character. Barker’s Briseis is not quite one or the other.
Rather than retell the story entirely from Briseis' POV, Barker has her cake and eats it by switching the POV, from first person limited to third person omniscient. This seems to defeat the purpose and flips the narrative to a dull retelling.
Christopher Logue’s great insight into this poem was that the characters are not modern players in fancy dress. There’s nothing remotely modern or romantic about the story. Barker wavers.
The writing has been applauded, but the way the men are represented as a cross between the rugby team after too many beers and a parody of 1970s bovver boys is two dimensional. The dialogue is leaden. The moments of high drama in the story, the speeches, debates, insults, are flat. This doesn’t seem like deliberate deflation of the heroic.
It also feels as if the reader is being invited to participate in an insane debate.
Which is worse, to be forced to fight and be hacked to death by Achilles or forced to have sex with him? To kiss the hand of your son’s killer, as Priam does, begging for his son’s body, or to be forced to do ‘what countless women before me have been forced to do? I spread my legs for the man who killed my husband and my brothers.’
Is there a point in establishing a hierarchy of awfulness? When neither seems like a choice anyone would make if they could avoid it? In a sane world, no one would have to suffer either fate. The story world of the Iliad is not sane by modern standards.
There’s also an unpleasant ghost of a love story drifting the book. By the end she’s fond of Achilles and sad he’s dead. I suspect the original might have thought this; he was the best a bad situation could offer. But it seems to soften the outrage. The need for uplift at the end in a popular book dilutes the real horror of the situation, which is stated in B's summing up at the same time it’s being qualified.
And despite the attempt to tell this story from her point of view, this is still, as both narrator and author recognise, the story of Achilles. But it has nothing new to say about him.