Book Review

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

a thousand ships

I really enjoyed Natalie Haynes’s first two novels, The Amber Fury and The Children of Jocasta, and was thrilled to pick up a signed copy of her latest novel, A Thousand Ships, at this year’s Hay Festival.  It was one of my most anticipated books of 2019, and it more than lived up to my expectations.

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.

The retelling of myths is not new, and indeed there has been something of a trend for it in recent years.  The retelling of those myths from a female perspective is not new either, and as one of the more commonly known myths, the Trojan War tends to crop up time and again.  In A Thousand Ships, classicist and comedian Natalie Haynes offers something a little different to the rest, using a larger number of perspectives and extending the timeframe covered beyond that of other, similar novels that I’ve read.  Rather than just focussing upon the ten year siege and the battles held during that time, Haynes also shows the events that led up to the Trojan War, as well as the aftermath following the fall of Troy (if that’s a spoiler, I would suggest that this book may not be for you).

Many of the novels I’ve read – and however many there are, I’m not even close to getting tired of reading them – focus on the perspectives of Briseis and Chryseis, two of the women enslaved by the Greeks during the siege.  Haynes does include their points of view in her novel, but also gives voice to many other women that were involved in some way – mortal and immortal alike.  These perspectives give a much broader view of events, and I love the many different voices that Haynes used to tell the tale.  Each is unique, and as each chapter is clearly marked as to whose perspective it is told from there is little risk of confusion.  There is also a handy reference guide at the beginning of the book highlighting who’s who and how they are involved should any clarification be required.

Of the perspectives used, it was Penelope’s letters to her absent husband, Odysseus, that I enjoyed the most.  I loved hearing about the Odysseus’s long journey home from the perspective of the wife who was left waiting for him, hearing of his adventures only from the bards who sing of his bravery and quick-thinking.

no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind

While the exploits and cunning of Odysseus are well known, I loved the tone of scepticism Haynes employed in Penelope’s letters as his journey goes from bad to worse, as well as the very clear tone of disapproval when news of some of his antics reaches Ithaca.  It’s very easy to imagine Odysseus arriving home and getting quite a scolding.

Throughout the novel, Haynes explores the traditional ideas of heroism and the acts that make us heroic in the eyes of others, questioning why the women involved in a war are not considered heroic as per their male counterparts.  This is a recurring theme throughout the novel, in which the bravery of these women is displayed time and again as they bear their fates stoically, putting up with a hell of a lot because of the grievances of men.

When a war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.

A Thousand Ships is my favourite of Natalie Haynes’ novels to date and very likely to feature in my favourite books of the year.  It was published in May by Mantle, and is available now in hardback and digital formats.

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