Book Review – A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

books, reviews

Rating: 3 out of 5.

2023 is turning out to be the year of Greek myths and their different retellings. I hadn’t meant for this to happen but I’ve just found myself in a bit of a cycle that I’m not intent on breaking. Thankfully there are so many recent books that I can read. Publishers are relishing the resurgence of mythology and it feels like every week we get a feminist rewriting of one of the most famous myths. Natalie Haynes is one of the most celebrated, so I felt that it was only fair that I give this book a chance. I guess it also helped that I’ve already refamiliarised myself with the events of the Trojan War thanks to Stephen Fry. Plus, it just happened to be available on my library app. Why not listen to it as I was working? Hearing the plight of all those women might make me feel better about my dull job.

 Though one stands out more than the rest, women played a huge part in the Trojan war. They might not have been responsible for great military feats like the men on the battlefield but that doesn’t mean they didn’t sacrifice a lot. As Natalie Haynes points out in her book, Troy was “a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s”. Unlike Homer in The Illiad, Haynes is placing their stories at the centre of the picture. A Thousand Ships focuses on what they went through. To achieve this, the book is told from a variety of perspectives throughout. We start with Calliope, the muse, who is invoked by a poet hoping for inspiration for his new epic. She forces him to look upon the women relating to the war and see the suffering and sorrow that he would have otherwise overlooked. She uses her influence to make him see that there were plenty more victims to this war than he would have cared to admit. The rest of the book sets out the stories of the goddesses, nymphs, royalty, and slaves who were all tied up with the events surrounding the 10 years of warfare. 

Due to the nature of this book, it does tend to feel a little fragmented. Several voices return a few times but, for the most part, we hear one woman’s tale and then move on to the next. The narrative jumps between the timelines, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. I prefer a chronological narrative if possible but I can see why Haynes went with this. We start proceedings as the Greeks storm Tory and meet the Trojan women on the beach awaiting their fate. This includes Queen Hecuba, her daughter and her daughter-in-law. These women are left grieving the loss of their loved ones, their city and their freedom. All that they can do is wonder who they will end up with. Obviously, Hecuba is a striking figure who combines her intense mourning with her Queenly restraint. Her story is particularly heartbreaking as she deals with the loss of her sons. However, I found it frustrating that we kept leaving Hecuba to visit somebody else. I think there would have been more power if we’d heard it in full before moving on. Instead, the book is almost presented as an analysis of the war by these women. 

I won’t say that A Thousand Ships attempts to do anything too unusual. Natalie Haynes isn’t trying to change the literary world or experiment too much. This book might seem quite simple compared to a lot of recent retellings. We hear about a lot of women but never spend a great deal of time with them. However, I think it really works for the purpose. The concept of the book was retelling the Trojan war from the perspective of the female characters. It never intended to add much to the source material but to change the viewpoint. These women have been written about before and, really, Haynes is aware of this. Ultimately, this book is making a point about the plight of women through the ages. The fact that they have so often been overshadowed by the men in their lives. The problems they experience here are familiar and relatable today. Had Haynes given new backstories to everyone then it would have distracted from the point. Instead, she creates her own epic that puts the focus on these women’s voices. 

For me, one of the most memorable figures in the book has to be Penelope. Her story is told in the form of letters to her absent husband, Odysseus. Penelope is shown to be a loving wife but there is an unmistakable undercurrent of resentment. As time passes, she becomes more frustrated and irritated with her husband. Especially as she hears all about his exploits from a helpful bard. As her letters pile up, Penelope becomes more sarcastic and angry. She is an absolute force of nature and I loved reading her letters. I’d happily have read a full book of her letter to Odysseus. I know we don’t get to see much of Penelope’s life but it feels as though she finally has a voice. She can tell her husband how she feels and call him out on his behaviour. I love the power of her simple statements about what she would do if she had been in his position. So matter-of-fact and unforgiving. Yet, she clearly loves her husband and wants him home. Penelope’s sections are brilliant. 

I won’t waste too much time going over each of the women in this book but there are plenty of stories to be told. Each one is full of emotion. There are women who we meet only briefly and those who we stay with for a while. It is also wonderful to flit between mighty figures like Hera and Aphrodite before going back to ordinary wives and mothers. This is a book that doesn’t discriminate against anyone. Well, except Helen but we have heard a lot about her over the years. A Thousand Ships doesn’t just set out to tell the story of the Trojan War from the women’s side. It sets out to prove just how important every single woman’s story is. They are not traditionally heroic in the way that Hector or Achilles are. However, they still have strength and determination that is worth celebrating. Unlike other retellings of Greek mythology, this book remains very grounded. It doesn’t get swayed by hyperbole or over-embellishment. Instead, it sticks to the emotional resonance of the war. I think it’s one of the best Greek retellings that I’ve read in recent years.

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