In A Thousand Ships (2021), Natalie Haynes takes the events of the Trojan War — along with what led to it and what followed — and offers them up in familiar form but a form as viewed/experienced through different eyes: those of the women from both sides who experienced as much if not more of the war’s horrors even if (save for one point-of-view) they didn’t actually fight in it.
Haynes frames her story through the voice of Calliope, who, as an unnamed poet (Homer, one assumes) calls upon her to be his muse, wonders, “How much epic poetry does the world really need … these stories have all been told, and countless times. Can he really believe he has something new to say?” Regardless, Calliope does engage, though perhaps not as the poet desired: “I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. Well, most of them.” And in short order we’re introduced to, among others: Penelope, Briseis, Chryseis, Iphigenia, Hecabe, Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Andromache. Nearly 20 women in all — some Greek, some Trojan, some mortal, some divine (some half and half) — are given voice through a series of mostly short chapters. Some are given a single vignette to tell their tale; others we return to several times. Calliope, for instance, intervenes as a sort of meta-narrator, while Penelope shows up in the form of several letters she writes to the husband she will not see for 20 years.
Some of the stories will be highly familiar (spoiler alert for the millennia-old plots) — Clytemnestra’s killing of Agamemnon upon his return, Paris’ stealing away Helen, Penelope’s nightly unweaving a burial shroud to forestall the suitors. Others will be familiar to those who have read beyond the usual high school/college assignments, Haynes taking their stories from the lesser works (some fragments or even lost). And some were wholly unfamiliar to me, though if that’s from my lack of deep classical training or that Hayne’s spun them out of her own imagination I can’t say.
The different stories vary in their effectiveness, but there is a general flatness to many of them and unfortunately the whole is not greater than its parts. One of the problems is alluded to in the above quote by Calliope asking if there is anything new to bring to this oft-told tale, and I can’t say the shift to the women’s POV is enough “new.” One reason is that some of the stories are so familiar, and the chapters so short, that several of them read in large portions as summaries of stories we already know. Penelope’s letters especially fall prey to this, with them serving in large part to simply recap The Odyssey. Obviously, familiarity isn’t a barrier to success, as one can easily list a host of authors who have retold these same stories or others to great impact (see below), but those authors grow beyond the original tale, either by fleshing out the stories with far greater detail (and thus far greater “story”), taking them in different directions, or at the least elevating them beyond the simply familiar via style, language, or characterization. And A Thousand Ships just doesn’t offer enough of any of those possibilities.
Calliope is too blunt a tool as narrator, loudly announcing themes we should have picked up from the stories themselves — that the voices of women matter, that just because the stories left them out didn’t mean they were not there, that heroism can be displayed by other means than sticking someone with the sharp end of a stick. Penelope offers up the occasional bit of wittily wry commentary on her wayward husband’s journey but buried as it is amidst too much plot summary, she’s never given the chance to truly show us how, as she says, she’s more clever than “Clever Odysseus” beyond the well-worn tale of her weaving and unweaving. The story of Briseis also suffers from too much summary, robbing it of some of its impact at the end when, for the first time amongst her horrors, she cries. A section from Gaia’s point of view explaining the origin of the war, where she complains to Zeus of humanity becoming a crushing burden to her, “taking more from her than she had to give — trees denuded of their fruits, fields ploughed until they could give up no more crops,” is based on a few classical references, but it’s such an unfamiliar story to most I’m guessing that in its brevity and lack of context it will most be read as a clumsily-inserted attempt at environmental topicality (the cause most will remember — Paris choosing the most beautiful goddess from amongst Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite is actually one of the most lively vignettes).
That brevity works against several of the stories, which have their moments, and it can’t be denied at times their emotional impact, but because we haven’t spent much time with these characters individually, and we already knew what was going to happen to them, that impact is either blunted or doesn’t feel wholly earned, as is the case, for instance, with Iphigenia or, at the end, Andromache. While the sheer number of voices does provide, as Calliope says, “the chance to see the war from both ends … Epic in scale and subject,” it comes at a cost. That isn’t to say Haynes doesn’t provide any powerful moments, just that they’re too few and far between. Interestingly, I’d also say that the ones that do strike with the most impact are those centered on less familiar characters, such as the mountain nymph Paris abandoned for Helen, or the vignette involving the Goddess of Discord, Eris. I also found myself wishing that if the idea were to provide a multiplicity of voices, that we could have heard from several women who were not royal or divine. If heroism and importance isn’t limited to simply men, it also equally isn’t limited to higher classes.
Finally, while the language and style make for smooth passage through the novel, it doesn’t, as noted, elevate the material, rarely rising to a point where one lingers over the startlement of a metaphor, the beauty of a construction, the layering of meaning. It’s adequate to plot, but not, I’d say to story, if that makes sense. And here is where Haynes falls victim to simple bad luck.
It is certainly no fault of Natalie Haynes that A Thousand Ships comes out in recent memory of several others that also retold Greek myths from a female perspective, some of these very same stories from the very same points of view, albeit in much more moving, much more lyrically eloquent fashion: Madeline Miller’s Circe, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, and (albeit via a somewhat less feminist slant) House of Names by Colm Toiban. You write the book inside you when it’s inside you. Unfortunately, though, those books — two absolutely fantastic and one good — can’t help but cast a long shadow on Haynes’ work. If I hadn’t read those three works in the past year, I would have hemmed and hawed on a recommendation for A Thousand Ships, but with those in mind, and fully understanding Haynes has a different intent, I can’t help but recommend that if you’re going to read any novelistic feminist retelling of a Greek myth, you should start with those three (in that order). And then, if you haven’t been sated on Greek myth, maybe turn to A Thousand Ships (though I might suggest earlier works to pick up first).