A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Published by Mantle, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
A Thousand Ships is a paradoxically exciting and underwhelming read; a great example of how the timing of a book’s publication can make or break its impact. Attempting to retell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath from an entirely female perspective, the novel’s aim is to give voice to those usually pushed to the periphery, and to reframe classic mythology from a more feminist angle. This is an ambitious concept, but its similarity to recent high-profile releases – notably Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker – leaves it open to inevitable comparison, and a frustrating, if unfair, feeling of familiarity.
First off, the book is incredibly readable, and I found myself flying through it. Haynes does a fantastic job of showing the myriad ways a war can be fought beyond physical combat; the upsetting lack of bodily autonomy experienced by most women in times of conflict; the heartbreaks both big and small that must be endured; the sense of sisterhood between friends and enemies alike; and the stoicism shown by those left to pick up the pieces once the dust begins to settle. Her handling of both goddesses and mortals within the same sphere is also effective; the former feeling suitably powerful and ethereal, yet engaging and approachable on an emotional level.
The book’s greatest ambition – to inhabit the voice of almost every major female figure touched by the war – was ironically one of its greatest missteps for me. With so many point-of-view characters, certain perspectives are inevitably more compelling than others. The anguish of Cassandra, doomed to foresee the future but never be believed, and the sorrow of Gaia, the Goddess of the Earth who must watch mankind destroy everything she loves, are particularly well portrayed, for example. I also liked that the initial ingrained misogyny shown towards Helen (by both men and women) was directly challenged by the character herself; Helen asking other women why they hold her solely responsible for the outbreak of the war, and not her abductor or her husband (though I do wish this thread had been pushed much further moving forward).
Other characters, like Calliope and Penelope, are much less convincingly drawn, sadly. The former often feels like a mouthpiece for the author, a character through whom Haynes clumsily declares her book’s themes. The latter’s chapters are presented in the form of letters to her absent husband, recounting in the second person his own adventures (à la, “You did this, then you said that.”). Not only does this make little narrative sense (why would he need a detailed description of his own recent actions?), it also does little to offer Penelope a sense of worth or independence beyond her link to her husband, which feels like the exact opposite of the book’s intention. On the contrary, her contribution comes off as a thinly veiled means of shoehorning the story of The Odyssey into the narrative without utilising a male perspective.
Moving between so many characters at such a fast pace can also lead to some confusion as to the many links between them all, and how everyone slots into the bigger picture. For people completely new to mythology or retellings, I can see it proving more than a little daunting trying to make sense of the intricate web entangling the many players. All that said, I feel the book would have been stronger had it had a greater sense of focus, with Haynes choosing a few key women and homing in on their viewpoints.
I enjoyed this, but never felt wowed or moved by it in the way I – or the book – hoped I would be. A few years ago, this book would arguably have broken ground by offering a very underexplored take on beloved myths. Though not the author’s fault (this will almost certainly have been written long before publication of books like Circe or The Silence of the Girls), it now feels like a solid enough if lukewarm entry in a genre that is at risk of becoming oversaturated.
You can pick up a copy of A Thousand Ships from Book Depository by clicking here.
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