We don’t need another hero.
Thank you to Picador/Pan Macmillan for providing me with an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020
In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective, for fans of Madeline Miller and Pat Barker.
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.
The devastating consequences of the Trojan War 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, in A Thousand Ships Natalie Haynes gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.
It’s interesting that the blurb mentions Madeline Miller and Pat Barker. I’ve read The Song of Achilles and Circe (both by Miller) and The Silence of the Girls by Barker. I enjoyed A Thousand Ships more than the Barker but didn’t love it as much as either of Miller’s books.
Barker’s The Silence of the Girls disappointed me because I’d hoped it would retell events from The Iliad from the perspective of the female characters. But halfway through the narrative we switch from the female characters’ viewpoints to Achilles’, and I didn’t think we needed yet another male view on events. Thankfully, Haynes doesn’t do this in A Thousand Ships. Instead, we get an entirely female perspective as we skip between the stories of various characters featured in The Iliad (and, to a lesser extent, The Odyssey), including goddesses.
In this way Haynes’ book applies a great deal of imagination to “recover” the voices of characters who only get brief mentions in the classics. By doing so she is following a tradition going all the way back to Ovid and his Heroides, a series of poems in the form of letters written from the point of view of heroines of Greek and Roman mythology.
I liked that so many different stories were included and the way they were interlinked. The structure is almost a series of short stories skillfully woven together, but then that all seems approriate given how important Penelope’s story and her weaving is.
My favourite voices included Calliope. I thought it was original to give the Muse herself a voice and that she was quite rightly cheesed off at being ordered about by mortal poets.
My other favourite was Penelope. She is often portrayed as the “perfect wife” (mostly by male authors and artists, it has to be said), meaning she is patient, faithful and silent. I always imagined she would actually be incredibly annoyed that Odysseus went off to war for 10 years and then took 10 years to return (entirely his own fault for being a show-off), especially as tales of his escapades and time spent with other women got back to her. Haynes’ Penelope displays quite a bit of this justified irritation and weariness.
The research behind the book is meticulous. In the mining of classical literature, but also in archaeological details, right down to the description of a pair of earrings and the clothing worn by the Amazons.
The classical epics depict heroism as a male act, usually involving fighting and death. But A Thousand Ships puts forward the idea that the women who are left behind and must carry on despite having lost everything are also incredibly brave, even if their everyday heroism and incredible strength hasn’t been seen as worthy of epic poetry.
You don’t have to have previous knowledge of the The Iliad or Greek mythology to read and enjoy A Thousand Ships. However, I’d argue it would increase your enjoyment as, by having prior knowledge of the stories on which Haynes’ is basing her narratives, you’ll find it a more relaxing read.
Overall: a terrific collection of “recovered” female voices which bring to life characters and celebrate a quieter heroism sidelined in epic literature.