A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Published 2 May 2019
This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…
In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .
The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…
Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.
A Thousand Ships is a feminist retelling of The Iliad from multiple points of view. The central conceit of the story is that the muse Calliope is giving a blind poet (Homer) visions of womens’ stories during The Trojan War so he can compose a great epic poem. It follows goddesses and mortals, wives and daughters and sisters and mothers, enemies and allies, victims and villains, Trojans and Greeks. I think that while it can be read on its own merit, it helps to have a passing knowledge of The Iliad.
The narrative is non-linear and third person (mostly), and follows no less than twenty five characters. But don’t stress! Many of the stories are fairly self-contained. The important part is that these women are all connected by an event that defines and shapes their lives – The Trojan War. (There is also a helpful list of characters at the beginning of the novel if you need it.)
The characters are obviously the crowning glory of this novel. Each woman has a unique voice, and despite many having only a few pages of their own, they are all surprising complex and well developed. I felt a connection with almost every character in this book.
My favourite chapters were Penelope’s letters, written in the second person, to her husband Odysseus during his twenty year absence from home. She conveys both her annoyance and her grief over his prolonged absence, and her letters are peppered with sarcasm and desperation.
The most moving scene, surprisingly, was one between Cassandra and Clytemnestra after Agamemnon’s victorious return to Mycenae. I wish I could go into more detail, but it was heart-renching in both its sadness and its beauty.
I also want to briefly mention the atmosphere that permeates A Thousand Ships. Haynes has somehow managed to take an awful event and suffuse it with both horror and beauty. Despite the almost overwhelming sense of grief and pathos there are moments of brightness – hope, humour, relief, love. The contrast is one of the things I think makes this novel so successful. Haynes has managed to find exactly the right balance between two extremes. Too far in either direction and the whole story would fall flat.
The characters were thoughtfully rendered, and the whole narrative was beautifully crafted. I wholeheartedly hope that Haynes continues to produce compelling and thought-provoking Greek retellings such as this. I can say with confidence that both A Thousand Ships, and Haynes’ previous novel, The Children of Jocasta, are currently my top two favourite reads of 2019.
I’d recommend it for fans of Greek mythology, feminist retellings, as well as those who enjoyed Madeline Miller’s Circe, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, and Haynes’ previous novel, The Children of Jocasta.