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.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a number of novels published recently which look at Greek myths and legends from a feminine perspective. In the last few months I have enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, and For the Immortal by Emily Hauser, the story of Hippolyta the Amazon queen. Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls is another, this time bringing to life the character of Briseis and the events of Homer’s Iliad.

When the city of Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks during the Trojan War, Briseis loses her husband, King Mynes, and her father and brothers. The surviving women are shared out amongst the Greek conquerors as prizes of war and Briseis finds that she is given to the great warrior Achilles as a slave. The events which follow, such as the quarrel which breaks out between Achilles and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, over the possession of Briseis, and the fate of Patroclus when he impersonates Achilles on the battlefield, will already be known to anyone familiar with the Iliad. If all of this is new to you, though, don’t worry – no knowledge of Homer’s epic is necessary and Pat Barker makes it very easy to follow what is happening.

Most of the novel is narrated by Briseis herself and I found her a very engaging narrator. The nature of her story and the ordeals she faces make her an easy character to sympathise with; I was given a good understanding of how she felt about losing her freedom, becoming a slave and being at the mercy of the men responsible for murdering her family and destroying her city. This is quite a dark novel and Barker doesn’t hold back when describing the brutality of the men in the Greek army, both on and off the battlefield.

I was surprised to find that there are also some chapters written from the perspective of Achilles, who is very much the villain of the book. Although seeing Achilles’ side of the story certainly didn’t make me warm to him at all, it was good to get a different point of view, especially as it allowed us to see scenes and hear conversations that took place when Briseis was not present. However, because of the title of the book, I think it would have been nice if more female characters had been given a voice so that the silence of more than just one girl could be broken. We do meet some of the other women in the Greek camp, but only through Briseis’ eyes and Briseis is the only one we get to know in any depth.

I did really enjoy this book, though. It’s well written, very readable, and a fascinating portrayal of Ancient Greek society. If you’re interested in reading more about Briseis, you could try Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston and For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser. She also appears in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which will give you a very different view of Achilles as well!

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

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