A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Publisher: Picador Publication Date: July 2020

The book the group discussed on Wednesday 9th of September was Natalie Haynes’ ‘A Thousand Ships’ which had recently been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Natalie Haynes is a writer and broadcaster as well as a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 where she presents her own show: Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics which is currently on its fourth series.

Haynes has said that her inspiration for writing the book was that she felt that nothing had been written to cover the epic and expansive range of the Trojan War from the perspective of women. Her belief is that women ‘hold up half the sky’ and so she wanted to shift the focus on the war to a female collective viewpoint. ‘A Thousand Ships’ does just that, you have mortals, slaves, goddesses, princesses, mothers and daughters. You have women who are survivors, who are powerful and powerless, you have women who are heroic and those who are certainly not. Many commented on the petty and infantile nature of the gods and goddesses that filled this book. Whilst being darkly comical they were also shown to be heartless and monstrous with little care for the impact their actions would have on the mortals around them.

This feminist retelling of the ‘thousand ships’ features, as you might expect, the character of Helen.  Although she does not have stand alone chapters, she is able to put her side of the story across and the question is posed: why should the blame not lie with Odysseus or, even more appropriately, Paris? Each chapter focuses on different women, some well-known and others less so. Haynes brings out of the shadows of this great tragedy, an Amazon warrior Penthesilea a heroic figure in her own right, left behind on a lot of pottery from the ancient world but lost in the narrative of the Trojan War.

Although some of us felt the structure was a little complicated to follow at times with the backwards causation and the forwards exploration of the consequences, one argument put forward was that this enabled the reader to see clearly that the effects of war are not just on the battle field. The present tense of the Trojan women chapters being divided up as spoils of war for the Greek soldiers was harrowing and illustrated again the widespread consequences for everyone involved.

We were all agreed that there were moments in the book that were full of sadness and horror. Cassandra’s punishment for refusing Apollo was the gift of prophecy but alongside that was a curse that no one would ever believe her, dooming her to a life of isolation and to be perceived by those around her as insane. Despite a lot of darkness, there were moments of humour. The muse getting increasingly irritated with the poet who we must assume to be Homer. Penelope’s epistolary narrative highlighting her increasing anger at Odysseus as she grapples with how many dalliances he has. Haynes makes the point that it took ten years for him to get back but at least eight were spent in the beds of other women and so his ‘adventures’ feature a lot in the bedroom rather than with anything we would associate with heroism.

Even though this book is set in the ancient world this is very much a novel for our times and explores issues we still face today: sex-trafficking, slavery, war, over population and injustice. It also grapples with issues akin to the Black Lives Matter movement, the idea of who gets to tell the stories of our past and collective history- something we must continually grapple with and seek the truth of however uncomfortable that makes us to ensure a diverse and inclusive representation of the past.

The group were mixed in their feelings about the book with some offering as low as two stars whilst others gave five out of five. A testimony to the conversations and debates it elicited.

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