Book Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

by | Book Recommendations, Book Review

‘But this is the women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn’.

This is what Natalie Haynes seeks to do and successfully does in her powerful feminist retelling of the Iliad. True, there have been an explosion of books retelling the Greek myths from a female perspective but sometimes though enjoyable, I have found many of them derivative and cliché. Along with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, A Thousand Ships stands out. The sheer variety of narratives distinguishes this book from others. Haynes amplifies the voices of not only the women we know well, but of women who are lesser known such as Creusa, Eris, Penthesilea and Oenone. Voices so distinct and marked from one another, I could almost hear them as I read. I could feel Penelope’s increasing annoyance and frustration at her wandering and perpetually gallivanting husband as his odyssey was reported back to her. Surprisingly, despite the themes of heartbreak and anguish, Haynes manages to make room for humour too.

As the story jumps between these narratives to tell the story of Trojan War and its aftermath, we see women whose stories reflect experiences that are so very close to home. We follow:

Cassandra who is never believed, no matter that she spoke the truth or that her truths were so traumatic that they were physically debilitating; she must have been mad. We still live in a world where women struggle to be heard and believed, be it our pain, be it our abuse or even our competence. We must be mad or at the very least, imagining it.

Helen, who so reviled as the whore in her time as well as in History, defends her actions and places the blame on Paris the bigamist, asking them, and us, why do we blame the woman who errs but not the man? I thought of our society’s tendency to slut shame women or brand them as ‘home – wreckers’. I thought of the number of articles and comments I had read that accused Megan Markle of splitting up Harry’s family after first tricking and destroying husband number one.  It seems that if something is broken, it must be the woman’s fault.

The Goddesses themselves, who though they sup ambrosia and live on Olympus, are reduced to demonstrating their power through dominating each other. I thought of the feminist movement itself, where rather than unite in our commonality we seek to dominate each other’s point of view creating more weakness than strength, causing more hurt and division than is conducive to positive change. As it turns out, war is not just man’s domain after all.

As I read, I considered how it isn’t a book for feminists just because the story is told by the women who featured only as bit-parts in Homer’s Iliad. It is also because in drawing a spotlight over these women we are able to view women differently to the way they – we – have been viewed since antiquity. I could not help but draw parallels between the experiences of women fighting to thrive and survive in a man’s world, then, as now.  All women in the book are heroes in their own way and all have a part to play. Even Calliope, the muse, with a deceptively small part reminds the unnamed poet, and us, why we are here. Their stories can’t be ignored, and neither should we.

Words by Maria Rembert-Densum

Image from Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash.

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