I have previously received PR products (review copies of books) from Picador.
TW: this book includes war, violence, enslavement and rape.
Another Saturday, another book review! Today, I’m reviewing Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, this retelling of the story of how Troy fell focuses on the forgotten perspective, that of the women.
The book opens with Calliope, the poet’s great Muse. After Calliope, we hear from Creusa, who awakes to find her husband and son gone, and the city on fire. Troy has fallen. As the book progresses, it explores many of the different women’s viewpoints, including goddesses, queens, princesses and priestesses. Even Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, left alone in Ithaca for 20 long years while Odysseus journeys. The fall of Troy marks the mid-point of Odysseus’ long absence, and the beginning of Penelope’s despair.
The outline of this story, then, was one I was familiar with. Having read The Odyssey but not The Iliad, I was more familiar with the details of Odysseus’ journey after the fall of Troy, but of course everyone knows the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan Horse. Natalie Haynes does a great job of fleshing out this well-known story, offering a new perspective. Having read The Odyssey, I can take a good guess at what The Iliad would be like, and I’m fairly confident in saying that the women’s perspective would not be one that gets anything in the way of attention or focus. By giving these women a voice, the story turns from one of glory and valour to one of savagery and destruction.
I’m not often one for retellings, but I do like the twist that Haynes put on the classical literature. There are two sides to any story, and the perspective Haynes offers makes the story far more engaging for me than I imagine The Iliad would be. I’m a fan of character-driven books, and the bonds between the women of this story is the driving force of the narrative. The women of this story are queens and princesses, fallen into slavery, but they are still mothers, sisters, daughters. The story has much more of a human element to it than the Greek classics traditionally had.
As so many different perspectives are explored throughout this book, Natalie Haynes has to develop several unique voices to make each of the sections stand out to the reader, and this is something that’s done well… mostly. The sections are definitely all differentiated through different voices for the characters, different writing styles, and different atmospheres created, which is an impressive feat with so many women to encapsulate. The women were all intriguing, and three-dimensional, and the characterisation was absolutely great throughout the entire book, so I’d definitely recommend it for anyone who loves strong, well-written female characters, because there is an abundance of them here.
There were two sections that I didn’t really enjoy, and those were the ones that didn’t really fit into the narrative in the same way the others did: Calliope’s, and Penelope’s. Calliope’s sections felt like they would have been better if they were solely framing the narrative (ie, the first and last sections), but instead they appeared albeit infrequently, throughout the novel which ruined the flow of the narrative for me. Penelope’s sections, meanwhile, were my least favourite sections of the book. I understand the difficulty Natalie Haynes experienced: Odysseus travels with a crew of men, so to tell his story requires a different approach. However, the Penelope sections were written almost as letters to Odysseus, in which she details his own adventures, as told by a bard, back to him. First of all, this felt incongruous with the rest of the text, none of which is epistolary. Second, I didn’t really understand the point of these letters. Penelope expresses her hurt at his abandonment of her through them, but she mostly just recalls his own adventures back to him. Finally, I really didn’t like the voice of Penelope. It felt far too modern to fit with the rest of the book, and it felt, in places, like she was a bit of a wetwipe sort of character, which isn’t how I imagined her at all when I read The Odyssey. Odysseus’ story would have been better told through the mythical women and female creatures he meets on his epic journey rather than through Penelope. Or, perhaps Odysseus’ story did not need to be told here. The other thing I found with the Penelope sections was that I felt rather patronised by the author. I imagine anyone who reads A Thousand Ships without knowing the story of The Odyssey may feel differently, but as I am familiar with The Odyssey, it felt rather like being spoon-fed the narrative.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The additional touch of the character list at the start of the book was appreciated: I wasn’t familiar with all the relationships, so it was nice to have that added context, especially considering the book has so many characters. If you’re, like me, not all that familiar with The Iliad, the list of characters is a great thing to flick back to and check you’re keeping up. If you are familiar with The Iliad, the character list might be something you gloss over. This method of providing the additional context is much preferable to me than the Penelope sections, because the reader has the choice of how much to use it depending on their pre-existing knowledge. Other than those Penelope sections, however, I did really enjoy the book overall.