A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

“Just as I promised him: this was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?”

This is the book I had expected Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to be. A retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan War written from the perspective of not just one or two but many of the women who had a role to play in the war and its aftermath – and going beyond the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Oresteia to tell the stories the men didn’t tell.

From Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, to Cassandra the prophet; from Thetis, the sea nymph and mother of Achilles, to Gaia, the personification of Mother Earth; from Iphigenia, cruelly sacrificed on what should have been her wedding day, to Creusa, who wakes in the night to find the city of Troy in flames – just think of a woman from Greek mythology and she is probably here, in this book!

The stories of some of the women are told quite briefly, while others are given more time and attention; some appear only once but others recur again and again throughout the novel. Interspersed between these stories are a series of letters from Penelope to her absent husband, Odysseus, the tone growing increasingly hurt and frustrated as tales of his heroic escapades begin to reach her while the man himself appears to be in no hurry to return home to his wife. And holding all the other threads of the novel together are short sections of commentary by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who is providing guidance to a blind poet who wants to tell the story of Troy:

Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it? He has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies, woven together. Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield.

This is an ambitious novel but, for me, it mostly works. I say mostly because there were times when I found the structure confusing – the stories are not presented in chronological order and jump around in time so that a chapter set after the fall of Troy is followed by a chapter set at the beginning of the war – but I’m happy to admit that I am in no way an expert on Greek mythology and readers with more knowledge probably wouldn’t have a problem. I’m not really sure of the reason for the non-linear structure, though – obviously the stories must have been carefully arranged in a certain order but to me they felt very random. Also, because there are so many different narrators, many of whom made their voices heard only for a few pages before disappearing from the novel completely, it was difficult to form any kind of emotional connection with them. Still, there are some I found more memorable than others: Cassandra, doomed to constantly ‘watch the shock on people’s faces, when precisely what she had predicted – and they had ignored – came true’; Hera, Athene and Aphrodite fighting over the golden apple inscribed with the words ‘For the most beautiful’; and the sad story of Laodamia, devoted to a bronze statue of her lost husband.

Although A Thousand Ships felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel, I enjoyed reading it and am now wondering whether I should try Natalie Haynes’ previous Greek retelling, The Children of Jocasta.

Thanks to Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

15 thoughts on “A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

  1. Lark says:

    I read the Aeneid a few years ago. Didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it either. It would be interesting to read these same stories from the perspective of the women involved. 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I’ve never attempted to read the Aeneid, but I would like to one day. I really enjoyed reading about so many different women from Greek mythology in this novel.

  2. setinthepast says:

    I was going to order Pat Barker’s book because a few people recommended it, but maybe this would be better. I enjoyed Madeline Miller’s book about Achilles, but it would be interesting to read it from the perspective of the women. I read the Aeneid when I was about 16, but still haven’t managed to read the Iliad!

    • Helen says:

      I preferred this book to Pat Barker’s, but I think both are worth reading. I haven’t read the Iliad yet either, although I have read the Odyssey.

  3. Café Society says:

    I have a copy of this on my TBR pile and I’m glad that you think it was more successful than “The Silence of the Girls” because for me that really didn’t work in the way that I was hoping it would. I’m working my way methodically through said pile so it’ll be a couple of weeks before I get to this but I’m very much looking forward to it.

  4. Jess @ Jessticulates says:

    Great review! I’ve heard a lot of people say this novel is what they expected The Silence of the Girls to be – I haven’t read either of them, so I’m tempted to read them close together and compare. Glad to head you enjoyed this one!

    • Helen says:

      I think the title of The Silence of the Girls made me think we were going to hear lots of female voices, but actually half of the book was written from a male perspective. I enjoyed both books, but preferred this one.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    I had not heard of this novel before your review, but you surely got me interested. Though I can never keep them all straight, I always like another whirl through those characters, especially the women!

  6. Carmen says:

    This book sounds fascinating. I took a mythology class in college and love all things classical. I haven’t read The Iliad nor The Odyssey but the class covered those myths. My final paper was on Arthurian legend, since it’s a form of oral history tinted a great deal with fiction. I’ll put this one on my wishlist. The Silence of the Girls I put it too upon reading your review back when. 🙂

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