A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Published by Harper
Publication date: January 26, 2021
Happy Monday! I don’t often say that because, well…Monday, but today I’m back with a novel that kept me captivated. A Thousand Ships is Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the Trojan War or, more specifically, the immediate aftermath of the war. Not exactly new territory, as any number of writers have memorialized this greatest battle of Greek mythology, except Haynes chooses a point-of-view other than the war’s ‘heroes’. She relegates Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, and Agamemnon to the background while giving the women of Troy and Greece space to finally speak, weep, shriek, and roar their stories.
Some of the key narrators of A Thousand Ships are better known. There is Calliope, the muse of epic poetry who is being called upon by an ancient poet to help him write the story. She’s willing, but in a moment of wry humor wonders how much epic poetry the world really needs. Then there is Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus. In classic works, she is patient and devoted until the end, but here she’s represented in her letters questioning just why he has to live on an island with a beautiful sea nymph for 7 years rather than returning home. And why this happens twice.
Then there are the women of Troy, gathered on the beach awaiting their fate after their city has fallen and all of their men have been killed. Hecabe, wife of King Priam, hoping her youngest son is still alive; Andromache, Hector’s wife, clinging to their infant son. Cassandra is there as well, no better for having prophesied what would happen, because Apollo cursed her to be disbelieved. And the most despised of all—Helen, who is not really of Troy, but does not belong to Greece either. Given a majority time share, but with little voice in the classics, Haynes succinctly allows her to push back against being the agent of a destruction she was believed to be.
There’s great enjoyment in hearing from familiar names in the war, but where Haynes shines is in the smaller figures of mythology she pulls out. Smaller, only in that they’ve not been much recognized before. There is Penthesilea, an Amazon queen; Thetis, the mother of Achilles; Oenone, Paris’s wife; the goddess Eris; and from the old world of gods: Themis, the goddess of divine order, and Gaia, Mother Earth, the original goddess. Each of these characters, despite their historical literary neglect, played a significant role in the Trojan War or in its aftershocks.
The first blow against fictional history by men for men came with Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, another novel I loved. However, while the story was about the women living through the Trojan War, it was a grim portrayal of girls, who though they weren’t killed in battle, had their lives destroyed by men. A Thousand Ships is the next level in the evolution of women’s stories—the removal of men from the main stage. Haynes doesn’t deny that her characters have no agency in what happens to them, but they control what happens next: how to accept the fate of the gods or how to fight it.
If this all sounds too academic or complicated, it’s not. You don’t need to know anything about Greek mythology to love A Thousand Ships. Strip aside the lofty themes of piety, love, trust, honor and it’s a fabulous tale swirling around betrayal, jealousy, mystery, vengeance, and mayhem. The fun themes in fiction; expressed by women. Like Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, who awaits his return:
Her fury neither waxed or waned, but burned at a constant heat. She could warm her hands on it when the nights were cold, and use it to light her way when the palace was in darkness.
A strident novel of rage might get repetitive after a while, but Haynes is so crisp in her delivery, so sharp in her wit, the novel flows easily and fast. A Thousand Ships not only unwinds the messy backstory of a devastating, 10-year war, it perfectly translates ancient speech for the modern ear, unleashing the voices of women, who, though they never existed, feel as real as our own.
And I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. 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.
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