Book Review: For The Most Beautiful

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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.    

The women of Troy and why they matter: Guest Post by Emily Hauser

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Today I am delighted to welcome Emily Hauser to my blog. Emily’s debut novel, For The Most Beautiful, retells the ancient story of the defeat of Troy through the eyes of characters almost entirely disregarded in Homer’s Iliad, the women. Among legends such as Achilles, Hector and Odysseus, walked the unsung heroines, famed for their beauty, yet wholly underestimated for their influence. In this post, Emily explains to us who the women of Troy were, and why they matter.

 

When we think back to the classical past, we tend to think of men. Statues of naked males in perfect marble, poised to throw the discus – that’s what comes to mind first, at least for me. Then maybe the Parthenon, with its iconic architecture and its famous marble frieze depicting a procession of Athenian youths on horseback. Then, perhaps, a few names – if we think of myths, we go to Achilles, Odysseus, or Hercules; leaving the mythical, we think of Homer, Socrates, or Julius Caesar.

But, for me, there’s always one gaping, glaring question: where are the women in all of this?

It’s my belief that the women of the ancient world were just as important, just as vibrant, and just as three-dimensional as we are today – and that it’s only because of the gaps in the record (and, more often, the fact that that record was kept by men), that we don’t hear their stories.

So, as a scholar and researcher of the classical world, when I decided to write For the Most Beautiful I set out to uncover the stories of the women that lie behind one of the most famous stories of the ancient world of all: Homer’s Iliad. As a well-known literary critic, George Steiner, recently wrote of the Iliad, “there shines through the Iliad an idealized yet also unflinching vision of masculinity, of an order of values and mutual recognition radically virile.” It is, to most of us, a story all about men: the tale of a warrior’s – Achilles’ – desperate desire for glory; his clash with an overweening king, Agamemnon; his grief at the loss of his companion, Patroclus; and his ensuing pursuit of vengeance against Patroclus’ killer, the Trojan prince, Hector.

But if you look closer, this ‘warrior’s tale’ isn’t all it seems. Women – women’s lives, women’s concerns, women’s passions – are, in fact, present throughout the story, hinting at a much deeper, darker undercurrent to the glories of war celebrated by the figure of Achilles. There’s Helen, of course, the Spartan beauty who started it all (though whether she went willingly with Paris or as a captive, Homer never quite decides); but there are also other women – the captives of the Trojan War. And two stand out above all others in Homer’s Iliad: Briseis, princess of Pedasus, and Chryseis (spelled Krisayis in my novel), daughter of the Trojan high priest, whose capture and exchange begins the spiral of events that becomes Homer’s Iliad.

For the Most Beautiful, then, instead of focusing on Achilles’ story, or the story of Hector, Agamemnon, or Patroclus, tells the tale of the Trojan War as seen through the eyes of these two captive women.

Firstly, I want to suggest, seeing the Trojan War through a woman’s eyes enables us to appreciate the experiences of the real, unsung women who loved, lost and fought alongside the men and the warriors who we hear about, throughout history. The ordeals, the sufferings, the lives of women hinted at in single lines of the IliadBriseis, whose husband and three brothers were killed by Achilles; Krisayis, a captive and sex slave to the enemy king – are stories that deserve to be told, just as much as the stories of the heroes of the Trojan War. It’s a process of recovery, a re-inscription of the lost voices and stories of the women of Troy into the record.

Secondly, taking a woman’s perspective allows us to gain a new view on a so-called ‘masculine’ epic, forcing us to question our assumptions – about society, about war, about the very fabric of history itself. It suggests to us that there might be another way of looking at things, other ways of re-interpreting the past.

And finally – and perhaps most importantly to me – it shows that there are always ways of refreshing, re-invigorating and challenging our understanding of the past — so that by looking into history anew, the people of the past can come alive to us and continue to speak to us of the things we really care about.

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This post is the second stop on the Most Beautiful Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below. 

 

Blog Tour poster 

For the Most Beautiful is the first of three stand-alone novels that will comprise the Golden Apple trilogy.

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