Victoria’s Book Reviews: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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Another bestseller and potential prize-winner for you: enter A Thousand Ships. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this title follows in the much-loved footsteps of books such as Madeline Miller’s Circe and Colm Toibin’s House of Names by taking the fabled Greek legend of the Trojan War and narrating its fallout from the viewpoint of the many women who endured it and suffered because of it.

“Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it?… Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield.”

So, rather than Achilles, Hector and Agamemnon, Natalie invites the reader to bear witness to women’s sorrow by, instead, listening to the words of the likes of Penelope, Hecuba, Cassandra, the fabled Helen of Troy… even The Furies.

To quote Natalie’s Calliope: “I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold. I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight.”

With so many writers now re-examining and subverting Greek myths, the question inevitably rises of where this one fits in. How does it compare? What does it bring to the party that is different?

Well, humour is one thing it most definitely brings. Of course, the drama is here but Natalie Haynes benefits from being able to invest in a myriad of characters so she has the opportunity to platform the pain with the likes of Iphigenia and Electra, the daughters of Agamemnon, but also to raise the spirits via the gallows humour and acerbic wit of Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus.

Not only did the Trojan War last a decade but the great Greek General, Odysseus, took many more years to come home as he went off on subsequent adventures with gods and monsters. And all of Penelope’s pent up fury at Odysseus’s selfishness manifests itself in a series of quite brilliant letters that pop up throughout the book:

“You met a monster. You met a witch. Cannibals broke your ships. A whirlpool ate your friends…. The dog is fine by the way. Getting older, but aren’t we all?”

But, of course, where breadth is gained, depth is lost. I would have loved a whole book on Cassandra and her visions, or Hecabe’s revenge, or Andromache new life after Hector is killed. Instead, though, we get only snatches, epic lines such as, “Because the Spartan king had lost his queen, a hundred queens lost their kings,” but little more. Snippets of misery and revenge rather than women’s lives presented as epic on their own.

Perhaps that is the point that Natalie is making – that women are denied the stuff of legend simply because of the curse of their sex – but not much here rights that wrong. I loved reading this but, in truth, we are still told about the adventures of men only via women rather than other men. As a result, for me, A Thousand Ships doesn’t quite reach the heights of Circe or House of Names, which were able to truly pivot the Greek myths to revolve around women, rather than solely bear witness to the lives of men, and talk about those same men, but from another viewpoint.

Nevertheless, I really did enjoy reading this book immensely and I would recommend it wholeheartedly.

 

A Thousand Ships is published by Pan Macmillan; paperback RRP £8.99 (from August 2020, hardback RRP £16.99 available now.

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