Back to the Future, With Books Instead of a DeLorean

By Alida Becker

Do you read historical fiction to be immersed in an alternate reality? To imagine what past lives might have looked and felt like? To find connections to the present? Your answers to those questions will determine your reaction to THE WOMEN OF TROY (Doubleday, 304 pp., $28), the latest installment in Pat Barker’s feminist retelling of the “Iliad.” Narrated, like its predecessor, “The Silence of the Girls,” by Briseis, a captive Trojan queen, it’s set in the camp of the increasingly fractious Greeks, trapped after their victory by a ferocious wind that prevents them from returning home.

The place and the characters resemble those of Homer’s mythic storytelling, and atoning for the desecration of King Priam’s corpse is a pivotal aspect of the plot. But the gods remain offstage and the human voices sound more like those you might hear in a London pub: “Pyrrhus loses it. Totally.” “Keep a low profile.” “Some poor sucker.” “That decrepit old git.” “Start living in the real world.” “It was always about them.”

Barker seems to want to jolt readers out of the detachment that can accompany costume-drama language, plunging us straight into the timeless trauma of women who’ve witnessed the carnage of war. Now, as “prizes of honor,” the Trojan women must sleep with and bear the children of the men who murdered their husbands, fathers and sons. I’m not quite sure such an obvious verbal nudge was necessary, but what’s more convincing is Barker’s evocation of Briseis’ struggle to survive, her depiction of the emotions and rivalries of the captive women, her tart assessment of the posturing and vulnerability of the men who rule over these tragically diminished lives. As Barker follows “a thread of meaning through a labyrinth of fear,” her insight and compassion are on full display. As is her outrage: “Heroic deeds, atrocities — who’s to say where the line is drawn?”

The young woman who narrates A. K. Blakemore’s THE MANNINGTREE WITCHES (Catapult, 320 pp., $26) is also caught in the web of male power. The daughter of a widowed seamstress eking out a precarious living in a tiny English village, Rebecca West tries to better herself by learning to read, but only succeeds in falling prey to a religious fanatic. It’s 1643 and the civil war between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists has given rise to the sort of social unrest that feeds on rumor and superstition. Tales of demonic possession grip the community and when a somber Puritan gentleman arrives to investigate, his questions will lead to the arrest and trial of Rebecca and her mother as well as a handful of similarly impoverished women.

Blakemore, a well-regarded British poet, transports us back to the historical events of the “so-called Witch Craze” that resulted in the execution of more than a hundred men and women. This is an intimate portrait of a clever if unworldly heroine who slides from amused observation of the “moribund carnival atmosphere” in the household of a “possessed” child to nervous uncertainty about the part in the proceedings played by her adored tutor to utter despair as a wagon carts her off to prison: “I think that Jonah himself cannot have had a more terrible view than this, even as he slid down the gullet of the whale.”

As Rebecca languishes in a fetid cell with her fellow inmates, her relationship with Matthew Hopkins, known as the Witchfinder, becomes ever more convoluted. Is there a perverse attraction on his part? Can she use it to save herself? After all, Hopkins is convinced that God has commanded him to guide as well as punish her since she and her mother have lived far too much on their own: “When women think alone,” he proclaims, “they think evil.”

The three teenage brides at the center of Sunjeev Sahota’s latest novel, CHINA ROOM (Viking, 256 pp., $27), are almost never alone and for them marriage serves as both punishment and prison. The setting is rural Punjab in 1929, but it might as well be the Middle Ages. A triple wedding has bound these young women in squalid servitude to the three brothers who work the farm — and to the malicious whims of their husbands’ mother. Kept strictly isolated from the men in a house “where everyone is watched by someone,” each of the brides is periodically sent by their mother-in-law to the “china room” of the novel’s title, where sex in the pitch dark will, it is hoped, produce a bumper crop of male heirs. The cruel twist: None of the three knows which of the brothers is actually her husband.

Fifteen-year-old Mehar provides the impetuous focus for this half of Sahota’s narrative as she tries to discover her husband’s identity. Alternating with her increasingly dangerous efforts is the story of her great-grandson, isolated on the farm seven decades later, this time by his own will. The privileged son of immigrants to England, he’s been sent to spend the summer with his uncle, who lives in a nearby town, in hopes that such a drastic change will enable him to conquer his drug addiction. That he winds up spending time alone in the china room is only one of the many ironies of his situation.

Sahota’s novel, which was among the 13 works of fiction on the “long list” for Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize, eloquently demonstrates how much — and how little — has changed in the years since Mehar’s scheming yielded a dramatic and deadly confrontation. The many options available to Mehar’s descendant are subtly compared with those of a seemingly liberated female doctor and of his domineering, deeply unhappy aunt. And, of course, the contrast with Mehar’s life is heartbreakingly stark. As she sets a rebellious course with the man she believes to be her husband, she wonders “how much of her love for him is bound up with this promise of freedom?”

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