A Thousand Ships (2019) – Natalie Haynes

Title: A Thousand Ships
Author: Natalie Haynes
Date published: 2019
Publishers: Pan Macmillan
Star rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer: This copy was kindly sent to me for review from Pan Macmillan SA in exchange for an honest review.

And I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold. I have picked up the old stories and shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight. I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough. Just as I promised them : 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 picked up this beautiful book with an existing love and fascination for Greek mythology and after savoring every page, Natalie Haynes has convinced me to love the subject even more. This is not a small feat, and I am not entirely sure if it was the rather lengthy period of time spent reading Homer’s The Odyssey or Virgil’s The Aeneid that created such respect for this aspect of early literature. As much as reading these epics was a weighty task, it was also an incredibly satisfying experience to indulge in all the shenanigans the Greeks got up to before, during and long after the Trojan War ended. Haynes’ book could be viewed as a ‘writing back’ of sorts, much like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was for Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Haynes’ book is unique not only because she is re-imagining the classics and the myths, but because the voices of the women in these tales were always silenced. As they stood on the periphery waiting for the husbands and fathers and brothers and sons to return from a war either dead or victorious their anguish and their anger were never acknowledged, and I believe in so many ways the author broke their silence forever.

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The war between the Greeks and the Trojans began with the beautiful Helen of Sparta who was married to Menelaus, brother of the King of Mycenae. They were the Greeks. Helen ran away to be the lover of Paris who was the son of Priam and Hecabe, the king and queen of Troy. They were the Trojans. A thousand ships were sent to Troy to bring back Helen, and what resulted was a ten year war, death and destruction, unspeakable violence and loss, and epic adventures so intricate that it seemed only the gods could have spun them.

Told from several different perspectives, Haynes’ book is a beautiful mix of so many women clamoring to get their stories told and their voices heard. Some of the notable characters include Penelope whose husband Odysseus took almost fifteen years to return to his home during which time he battled sirens and giants and massive whirlpools. Another voice is that of the Amazon princess Penthesilea who went to war and fought on behalf of the Trojans against the great Achilles, a warrior whose legend was made better known than the woman who battled him. As tragedies past and present are witnessed for the first time through new eyes, the author keeps returning to the desolate sea shore where the women of Troy awaited their fate after their kingdom had been burned to the ground. They sit and wait with a fear of the unknown and are forced to experience the indecencies of war and death. Meanwhile Aphrodite, Athene and Hera who are worshiped as deities have meddled in the mortal world and are responsible for one of the worst romances in literary history.

In essence A Thousand Ships is not just about retelling the stories of old from a female perspective, but it is also about being witness to not only the tragedies and the loss, but also of the courage and bravery exhibited by countless wives, daughters, sisters and mothers. It is about baring witness to honor and family and love, whilst still acknowledging the politics of war and the ensuing brutal violence of the time.

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In conclusion Natalie Haynes is undoubtedly a master at reinterpreting the tragic history of the Greeks and the Trojans, whilst still honoring the very important task of unearthing lost voices long since buried amidst bloody death and destruction. The irony of the feminine perspective being pitted against the male dominance is duly noted. The reader is supplied with a fairly descriptive glossary of the all the key players, which is very helpful if you don’t have a previous knowledge of Greek mythology and early literature, and it also helps if you do and have forgotten the difference between Creusa and Calliope, Aeneas and Eris or Hecabe and Hera (fun fact: Calliope, Eris and Hera are goddesses and the rest are not so ‘mere’ mortals). This is a beautifully written collection of stories that will surely find their way into your rebellious and adventure-loving heart.

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