For the Most Beautiful, by Emily Hauser, is a retelling of the story of the fall of Troy as seen through the eyes of two women, Breseis and Krisayis. Based on events described in Homer’s ‘Iliad’, the author imagines how life would have been during those turbulent years for the people who lived within the shadow of the warriors and their epic battles. As today, youth and beauty were valued by men who give little credence to women’s thoughts or opinions. Despite this, they find ways to affect outcomes by refusing to accept the narrow lives the men dictated should be the sum of a woman’s aspirations.
The book opens on the slopes of Mount Ida. Paris, a son of the King of Troy, is approached by three beautiful women who reveal themselves as gods. They demand that Paris judge which of them is the most beautiful, offering incentives in an attempt to sway his decision. Paris’s choice and subsequent reward provide the catalyst for the Greek invasion which will culminate in Troy’s fall.
Interspersed between the chapters that tell of the mortal’s lives are tales of the gods as they watch events unfold from the gardens of heaven above Mount Olympus. They are bored and the looming war offers entertainment and the opportunity for a few wagers. They take sides and offer assistance to their favourites. It is not a view of the deities that the worshipful humans comprehend.
Both Bresias and Krisayis must watch as the men they love lose their lives to invaders. The young women are taken as slaves and, because of their beauty, claimed by the most senior warlords. This gives them access to plans that may assist their people if they can find a way to be heard.
Bresias’ loyalties are challenged as she recognises how pointless the fighting is, that it leads to nothing more than further death and suffering on both sides. Krisayis has no such qualms and risks her life to pass intelligence back to the leaders of Troy, holed up behind the walls of their beautiful city while the towns around them are sacked and their people killed or enslaved.
The conceit of the men, who do not consider that women may not fall into line, enables Bresias and Krisayis to act; yet this is nothing compared to the conceit of the gods. The outcome of the earthly fighting is as much driven by their whims as by knowledge, skill or bravery in battle. To the gods, mortals are their playthings.
A little licence is taken in the denouement, inspired by archeological finds as much as by the text of the poem on which this retelling is based. Of course, the Iliad is itself a story. It is a neat reminder that narrators of history present a version of the truth that suits their time and place.
This book is easier to read than the translated classic texts and offers the characters more depth and backstory. The gods reminded me of the depictions of certain gods in the Marvel universe, although the mortals view of them offers insights into more modern religions. Man has not been created in any god’s image so much as the gods have been created in man’s. That the female gods appear even more shallow than their earthly counterparts suggests that they have been created by man as well. It is the women in this story who bring it to life.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.