Saturday, May 26, 2007

Book Review: "Troy" by Adele Geras

My fascination with the Trojan War and its legends aside, Adele Geras' version of the tale makes for very compelling reading, for a number of reasons.

Geras incorporates a lot of aspects that are usually ignored for the sake of streamlining the story: characters such as Oenone (Paris' first love), Deiphobus (the Trojan prince who marries Helen after Paris' death) and Hermione (Helen's daughter) are part of this world, and even if they don't directly appear in the narrative, their very existence shapes the way we view the characters. Helen, for example, is no longer just a runaway wife but a mother who abandoned her child. Geras also places a heavy emphasis on the passing of time - though the novel is mostly concerned with the final years of the war, we are never allowed to forget that the city has been under siege for ten years. This broadens the scope of the tale considerably, breaching the confines of a two-hour Hollywood blockbuster and regaining the epic dimension originally set down by Homer.

Most adaptations of the Iliad provide both Greek and Trojan perspectives, typically from those characters who are considered to be Homer's protagonists (Hector, Helen, Paris, Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and so on). Part of what makes "Troy" so remarkable, then, is where Geras places us, as readers, in the fictional world she constructs. For starters, we're exclusively given the Trojan viewpoint until the very end of the novel, where Greek characters start popping up as focalizers (it's a nice bit of metafiction where they "invade" the narrative even as they're invading the city). This, of course, leads to a far greater dramatic impact, because we've spent the whole story in Troy, with Trojan characters, and their ultimate fate is dismal, brutal and destructive. You feel the horror and the loss much more strongly, I think, than you would in a narrative that divided your attention between the winners and the losers.

Geras takes this innovation a step further by pushing the Trojan royalty - in other words, the recognizable characters such as Priam, Hector and Paris - to the sidelines (some more than others; Helen is still a significant presence, but Cassandra is practically a ghost). All the main characters of "Troy" are servants, handmaidens and such, a class that's usually invisible, faceless and anonymous. Not only that, but with the exception of Iason the stable boy, all the main characters are women, and that provides a very unique and intriguing outlook on the war. It also allows Geras to avoid repetition by dramatizing the same familiar scenes; all the major events are seen from an "external" perspective, through the eyes of the women on the walls of the city. In fact, some fairly "important" events happen entirely off-page simply because there are no women to witness it.

I also like the subtle ways in which the author undermines the mythological dimension of the story, despite active participation of the Olympian gods. Helen, for example, is still the most beautiful woman in the world, but her relationship with Paris isn't quite as idyllic as the public thinks; she's tormented by the loss of her child, he feels pressured by her and seeks relief with palace servants, and there's just a tangible sense of erosion. One thing that's mentioned early on is that Paris' beauty - once the male equivalent of Helen - has faded; he's put on weight, he's lost his boyish charm, and while he's still attractive, there's a certain polished shine that has gone away in the face of harsh reality.

"Troy" is, ultimately, a story that works on two levels: it tells the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Trojan women who never existed as far as Homer's concerned, and it follows the lives of those Trojan women as they search for meaning amidst the blood and havoc. As might be expected from a female-centric work, it's very much a novel that deals with women's issues such as pregnancy, the threat of rape and mother/child relationships, but it also uses the backdrop of the siege to take these potential cliches in new directions. And it's an excellent read to boot, well-paced and coherent. Grade: 4 Trojan Horses out of 5.