Review | A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

We don’t need another hero.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes book cover

Thank you to Picador/Pan Macmillan for providing me with an e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

The blurb:

My take:

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.


Claire Huston / Art and Soul

7 thoughts on “Review | A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

  1. This is a fascinating review! I have quite a collection of legends retold, and I must get round to reading them! I read the Barker and agree that the view wandered to Achillies’ view too much, so I will be keen to read this one. I have managed to keep my copy of Circe from my daughter (by sending her a new copy when I couldn’t get to see her) so I ought to actually read it – and get my hands on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you 🙂
      It’s very good. Particularly because Haynes takes in some very minor figures which makes it even more interesting.
      I loved Circe. I knew from about 5 pages in that it was going to be one of my rare 5-star reads! If you only have time to read one, I would prioritise it 🙂

      Like

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