“The Politics of Teen Sexuality in Adèle Geras’ Troy” by Robin Diver

Bio: Robin Diver is an Arts and Humanities Research Council/Midlands 3 Cities funded PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her work focuses on children’s anthologies of Greek myth from 1850 to the present, and their adaptation of scenes of sexual violence. She is also General Editor for the Rosetta Journal and is currently organising a symposium on Shifting Notions of Modernity. She spoke on Troy at the FIEC in July.


Troy (2000), as might be expected from the title, follows the city of Troy during the Trojan War. Specifically, Troy is a YA novel by well-known historical fiction author Adèle Geras about the final year of the war, covering roughly the same time period as the Iliad. The story focuses on the experiences of two sisters, Xanthe and Marpessa. Whilst dealing with hunger from the city being starved, trauma from the bloody battle beyond the walls and the despair of a city slowly realising it can’t win, the sisters also face chaos brought by the gods in their personal lives. The goddess Aphrodite becomes bored with the war and causes both Xanthe and Marpessa to fall in love with wealthy Trojan soldier Alastor. Alastor, in turn, falls in lust but not love with Marpessa. Geras wrote two sequels, Ithaka which follows the events of Homer’s Odyssey and Dido which follows the events of Virgil’s Aeneid. Both sequels have a similar focus on intimate love triangles, betrayal and adolescent lust.

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Adèle Geras [source]

Other major characters in Troy include Xanthe’s friends Iason the stable boy and Polyxena the granddaughter of a famous bard, Andromache whom Xanthe serves, Helen whom Marpessa serves, the infant Astyanax and the three elderly ‘gossips’ Theano, Danae and Halie who serve the palace. To further the theme of romantic complications, Iason is in love with Xanthe and Polyxena is in love with Iason. Andromache fears that Hector secretly desires Helen, and Marpessa fears Paris may desire her.

Covers

The novel has gone through a number of different covers since its initial publication, which are rather striking in the different elements they have chosen to emphasise. For example:

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Cover from 2000 [source]
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Cover from 2001 [source]
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Cover from 2001 [source]
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Cover from 2002 [source]
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Cover from 2006 [source]

These five covers reflect an ambiguity as regards how Troy should be marketed. The first two covers use Greek pottery art depicting the Trojan War to suggest the novel inside will be a retelling of the Trojan War as a war by someone who knows much about the classical world, hence the use of Greek art. The first cover in particular is not obviously aimed at a female demographic, and the quote at the top: ‘Delivers the sack of Troy as an ambitious, cinematic affair’ again positions Troy as a retelling of the whole Trojan War for readers who want to, perhaps, experience a book form of the film which bears the same name. (The word ‘cinematic’ is notable.) The reader who purchased the book on the basis of these covers might be disappointed to find the focus firmly on the Trojans and primarily on the domestic lives of invented female characters within Troy, rather than on the battles.

The third cover, meanwhile, implies a novel about the personal tragedy that comes to individual characters through the famed Trojan War. The two faces on the front appear female, thus marketing the novel to girls, but they are still washed through in the reds, yellows and blacks of battle, blood and fire, positioning this as a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of violence and war. The quote this time is: ‘Not to be missed’, which suggests the book is good as a book, not merely as a re-tread of the Trojan War.

The fourth cover is still further from the first two. It depicts an unknown woman, whose face appears older than that of a teenager, grimly facing the viewer as an army approaches. This cover places the same emphasis upon individual female suffering as the third but perhaps moves away from its YA audience to market the book towards adult women, as suggested by the older woman on the front.

Finally, the fifth cover is very different. It does not make the story feel dark at all. The sisters are shown sitting on the Trojan walls in relaxed postures, surrounded by bright and cheerful colours. Their position is almost evocative of a tea party scene. A Cupid figure with wings sits on a cloud and aims his bow at them. The mosaic format of this cover and the classical Greek dress of the figures alludes to the novel’s historical material, but a reader picking this up might reasonably expect a light and fun read and be rather taken aback by the death, blood and drawn out infanticide of Astyanax that appear. The cottages and sea in front of the sisters are visually suggestive of Greece not Troy and their outfits are of course reflective of a later time period. The tagline: ‘Who can resist a goddess?’ draws the reader away from the direct action of the Trojan War that was emphasised on the other covers and into personal and domestic drama which might be expected to be more comedic than dark.

Structure

The story follows the major events of the Trojan War: the death and ransoming of Hector, deaths of Achilles and Paris, the Trojan Horse and the Sack of Troy. These are told through the eyes of the various characters whilst they also deal with their own dramas. Gods frequently appear as somewhat dispassionate observers of events as they unfold. One quirk of the story is that as soon as a god leaves the scene, everyone besides Marpessa immediately forgets they were ever there.

The novel is written in omniscient third person, with short chapters divided by scene, e.g. ‘The Plains’ or ‘Helen’s Palace’. Geras uses a style emphasising streams of thought. For example: ‘It was horrible, and I must, Xanthe said to herself, stop thinking about it. I must find something else to fill my mind.’ (P.2.) This placing of thoughts in first person and within their own sentence is done often and allows for the intimacy of first person narrative to sometimes break into the omniscient third person narrative, as well as creating a sense of destabilisation that fits the chaotic setting.

Lust – and Love?

The first central theme in this novel is that of love and lust. Troy is perhaps unusual among YA exploration of teenage sex and lust, but for its rather cynical portrayal of these things. Sex is not necessarily paired with love and the young protagonists are rather more matter of fact (and less idealistic) in their attitudes to sex than is typical of the genre. For example, Marpessa hopes no one will see her having sex with Alastor because she believes sex looks absurd to anyone who is not involved and caught up in the act. Xanthe, on the other hand, has the naïve and romantic attitude to love more stereotypically found in YA protagonists of the time, but this appears to be portrayed as a flaw.

Sexual obsession also features prominently. Geras plays with ideas and expectations about both love and lust. Marpessa struggles with confusion about whether she loves or desires Alastor, whilst he initially only desires her until Aphrodite causes him to fall in love at the end. However, Alastor also appears to assume that Marpessa must be in love with him because she is sleeping with him. Xanthe declares her love for Alastor immediately after meeting him in a way that seems somewhat unrealistic as love. Xanthe’s immediate infatuation with Alastor and the way she becomes caught up in romantic fantasies might in fact be read as a criticism or commentary on romantic tropes found in Hollywood and in YA fiction generally.

There is much debate among the characters about Hector’s feelings for Helen, and the question is never resolved. It is suggested he might have loved Andromache and lusted after Helen and even implied at one point he may have made advances on Helen. Overall, when compared to other historical YA, Troy does not make romantic love sound very appealing.

Other Themes

A second theme is that of gender division. The dismissive attitude Trojan men have towards women receives a lot of focus in the novel. For example, near the beginning Xanthe reflects that ‘Men are less than Gods, and women are less than men, and poor women are less than rich women, and girls are least of all and poor girls are even less than that. Better to be an ox.’ (P.18.) Marpessa reflects several times on the misogyny of Alastor. For example, when he complains he is being treated ‘like a young girl who can’t do anything except faint and lie around moaning’, she thinks that ‘Men thought women were weak, which amused her. She had seen girls screaming in the agony of childbirth and wondered how men would manage if the Gods had arranged it for their bodies to be torn nearly in two.’ (P. 104.) Geras does not take the fairly standard route within historical or fantastical YA of having her male love interest be less misogynistic than the average man in his society.

A third central theme is, of course, that of war. Although the novel takes place in the last year of the war, when the Trojans are beaten down and the glory of the war has long since faded, some characters still display idealistic sentiment towards it. For example, Alastor dreams of killing Greeks and is surprised by the reality of the war when he goes into battle, and Astyanax plays war games.

Xanthe, on the other hand, despises the war and refuses to watch it from the walls with the rest of the city, having seen first hand the real damage weapons do working in the room where wounded soldiers are treated. This links Troy to another YA war novel, Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance published two years later in 2002, in which the female protagonist also loses her enthusiasm for the first world war after reading a medical textbook describing the damage the weapons she makes do to human bodies. The horror of the sack of Troy is given a lot of space at the end.

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Remembrance, Theresa Breslin (2002) [source]
Gods

Finally, gods and free will are also major themes. The gods regularly appear and speak to the characters. Typically, a god will tell a character what is about to happen in the war; for example who is going to die, and the character will mistake them for a crazy mortal and refuse to believe them. Once the god has left, the character will forget the conversation ever happened. In this way, the gods appear mysterious and otherworldly, perhaps rather like fairies of folklore. They come across as having a greater plan, but also as rather bored and aimless at times.

Marpessa, the only human who can remember her encounters with the gods, is a strange, silent character who holds herself apart from the rest of society, suggesting either that seeing the gods has changed her or that there was something ‘other’ in her nature that allowed her to see them in the first place. Aphrodite regularly talks to her, but Marpessa does not have a positive view of the goddess.

Since the gods seem to control so much, including who falls in love with whom, this raises questions about free will. Geras is unusual in including the gods in her YA Trojan War novel; other similar works published around the same time usually omit them and give rationalistic explanations for the characters’ behaviour. (E.g. McLaren, Inside the Walls of Troy; Cooney, Goddess of Yesterday; Friesner, Nobody’s Princess; Tomlinson, The Moon Riders.)

Historical Fiction

Although Geras is a frequent contributor to the network of female historical fiction writers ‘The History Girls’ (http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com/), Troy definitely comes across as the novelisation of a myth rather than an attempt at historical fiction. Few things set the story within a specific historical context and the characters generally act like ancient Greeks and appear to be speaking the same language as their invaders. This can be contrasted to the depiction of the Trojans as Hittites in the more recent novelisation A Song of War (2016) by Kate Quinn et al. or the historically detailed YA Trojan War novel of two years later, Theresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders.

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The Moon Riders, Theresa Tomlinson (2002) [source]

The authors’ acknowledgements section at the start identifies her source material as Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and Wilcock’s commentary on the Iliad. Polyxena’s grandfather, a famous bard or ‘singer’ of wars, is presumably a nod to Homer himself.

Further

I spoke on Troy and three other YA Trojan War novels, Nobody’s Princess, The Moon Riders and Inside the Walls of Troy on Sunday the 7thof July at the FIEC conference in London in my paper ‘Rape, Sisterhood and Deadly Love: Attempting to Centre the Female Experience in YA Novels About the Trojan War’. The programme can be found here: http://fiec2019.org/sunday-7-july-2019/ and the FIEC website here: http://fiecnet.blogspot.com/.

Some additional reading:

Prepared by Robin Diver

Elaborated by Dorota Bazylczyk

 

 

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