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.