Book report #21 (2022)

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes. Pub 2021

Along the lines of Madeline Miller (author of past favourite Circe), Haynes speciality is historical fiction and Greek mythology fro’m the perspective of lesser-known characters, especially women (see last year’s discussion of The Children of Jocasta). In A Thousand Ships, Haynes gives voice to the stories and lives of the women of the Trojan War. Many of these receive mentions in the more famous texts of that time, but mostly just that – mentions. Haynes gives them life and depth, and shows that their stories, their strength and courage, and their losses are just as great and tragic as those of the warriors who are better known for their heroics (and, let’s be honest, their foolishness).

Presented as a series of anecdotes that are being “sung” by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, to a poet or writer, we get the stories of the mothers, sisters, wives, friends, and companions who lived, suffered, and died at Troy and in the various Greek cities and kingdoms. Women who were devoted to husbands and brothers, gods and children, and to each other, living and (mostly) dying as a consequence of decisions that were mostly not theirs. While strictly speaking the women were afforded less power and voice in the formal structures of things, we see that their influence and importance were powerful, differently if not equally to that of the men. Victims, yes, but also crafty, dedicated, haughty, vengeful, and brave. At the same time, the men are portrayed here as disrespectful, oafish, selfish, vain, stupid, and villainous, almost without exception, with most of their successes the result of errors or failures by their enemies rather than any courage or cleverness of their own.

The voice of Calliope throughout is a clever and well-used tool, reminding us that this is a retelling of a tale that should be familiar and yet is new because the lives of the women are rarely told this way. There is a brief chapter with Calliope midway through the book that is both laugh out loud funny and wryly sarcastic, so much so that I re-read it and read it out loud to enjoy the punch of the lines. The poet asking for Calliope’s inspiration is complaining about the stories of the women, and Calliope is losing her patience with him:

“Ah, but now I see the problem…Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic, is that it? He has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies, woven together. Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield…he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die. And that a death off the battlefield can be more noble (more heroic, if he prefers it that way) than one in the midst of fighting.”

Not many of the women survive, or survive intact, so tragedy remains at the heart of these stories. Perhaps the most significant vulnerability for women (other than sheer physical size and strength) is the maternal: losing their children and/or witnessing their suffering is pain and carnage that seems to affect the men less keenly. While the men – kings and soldiers and priests alike – clearly experience the grief and pain of losing their children, it is more powerful for the women, becoming a defining feature of their lives and a driver for their actions. The sorrow and anger of a scorned woman pales in comparison to that of a grieving mother.

I enjoy Haynes writing style very much, and look forward to her next book, the story of Pandora. In the meantime, I’ve learned that she has a BBC radio show that I’ll also check out.

Fate: I’m unlikely to read this again, so will either pass along or deposit to a little library.

1 – a book with a murder in it (quite a few)
4 – a book published in 2021
8 – a book with a female author
13 – a book set somewhere I’ve never been (Greece)
15 – a book with a number in the title
31 – a book about history (albeit fictional/mythical)

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