‘…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?’
I love a good myth retelling & Natalie Haynes’ recent novel A Thousand Ships is no exception.
In Haynes’ epic, she tells the story of the Trojan war, focusing not only on what happened, why it happened and what happened after, but on the lives and consequences of war on the women. Each chapter is told from a different woman’s perspective and while we follow some of the big names already made popular through movies, plays, poems and novels, we also hear from lesser known, ignored characters who are treated with equal care and attention. For those of you who have read Haynes’ previous novel, The Children of Jocasta, this will come as no surprise. I found new heartbreak in each voice and the gritty trauma of war really shines through. It is not one sided, we follow mortals, royals and citizens alike, Greeks, Trojians and goddesses. Their differing circumstances and experiences are what makes this novel feel so comprehensive. Sometimes conflict and the so-called heroes of war are romanticised in literature, largely because we need someone to root for to feel a connection, but I am pleased Haynes did not go down this route. How can you portray the devastation and loss of one’s whole world adequately otherwise? Even the tricksy gods and goddesses who orchestrate the lives of the mere mortals are not portrayed as enviable or even likeable beings. The women are the ones we connect to, root for and empathise with.
‘Because the Spartan king had lost his queen, a hundred queens lost their kings.’
Despite the relatively short length of the chapters, the reader really comes to feel for the woman on the page and remembers their story and tragedy long after the last page has been turned. Haynes expertly weaves the threads of the story together and despite the mix of point of view characters and the nonlinear narrative, the pacing and flow of the story is never compromised. We do see a few returning characters, Calliope for instance, reoccurs to remind us that war is not rosy, we cannot pick and choose which aspects to focus on and every life is significant and worth sharing. The Trojan women, the displaced mothers, daughters, sisters of the heroes of Troy collected on the beach, slaves to the victors, return to remind us of how royalty can fall and the harsh realities of surviving the battle on the losing side.
My only quibble was with Penelope’s chapters. While I enjoyed the epistolary format, her voice served to describe the adventures of her husband, the famous Odysseus as he spent 10 years away at war and then a further 10 years getting home. For the other women, we focus on them and their story, but Penelope writes letters to her husband telling him what the bards are saying and how she hopes it isn’t true. It was a shame and I felt the least connected to her as a result, although I did chuckle at her snarky remarks.
I have seen some complain that this retelling offers nothing ‘new’ to the canon, and yes, if you are a classicist or are well read in classical literature this might not be for you. I, however, throughly enjoyed seeing these women come to life and my heart broke for so many of them (goddesses and Helen excluded, naturally). I have read a few retellings and many of the characters and events were familiar to me but I loved it nonetheless. I can see why it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I hope it gets lots of new readers because of it.