A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes review – women of the Trojan war

The latest novel to retell Greek epic from the women’s point of view is a panoramic portrait of the true cost of conflict

Homer’s Iliad, as Natalie Haynes notes in the afterword to A Thousand Ships, is rightly regarded as “one of the great foundational texts on war and warriors, men and masculinity”. Recently we’ve seen a wave of novels that offer a new slant on its male-centred vision. Pat Barker gave Briseis, a minor character in Homer’s epic, a powerful narrative voice of her own in The Silence of the Girls. From the Odyssey Madeline Miller’s Circe spotlights the sorceress who detains Odysseus on his way back from Troy; both are shortlisted for the Women’s prize. Now Haynes, who has a background in classics, provides a bold choral retelling of the Iliad that’s panoramic and playful yet makes a serious comment on war and its true cost.

Haynes previously reimagined the Oedipus story in her 2017 novel The Children of Jocasta. Here she sets out to demonstrate that the Trojan war “is a woman’s war, just as much as it is the men’s”, and to draw attention to “the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men”. As she reminds us drily, “they have waited long enough for their turn”. But she is also interested in the business of how narratives are assembled. Her main narrator is Calliope, muse of epic poetry. She answers Homer’s famous invocation – “Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request” – by leading him on a zigzagging journey. What we get isn’t a single, linear story but a series of stories, as the voices that have been muffled up till now – “the forgotten, the ignored” – begin to speak.

There are plenty of women in this book whose narratives come through to us in the epic tradition only as tantalising fragments, and Haynes ranges well beyond the Iliad and the Odyssey to flesh them out. Take Andromache, widow of the Trojan prince Hector. She is handed over to Achilles’s son Neoptolemus after Troy falls; he has brutally killed her infant boy by throwing him from the battlements. Homer has little to say about her, and Haynes has to go to Euripides for the complex human conclusion to what begins as a tale of sensational tragedy. In time Andromache has another child with her captor. Haynes’s Andromache never comes to love Neoptolemus, “but nor could she maintain the visceral loathing she had felt when he first took her from her home. It was not possible to keep hating a man with whom she lived in such close proximity.”

Penthesilea and Achilles.
Penthesilea and Achilles. Photograph: Alamy

In war, fighting isn’t the only form of heroism: sometimes simple survival is equally heroic. Consider the mountain nymph Oenone, whom Paris abandons with their baby when he goes in pursuit of Menelaus’s wife Helen, triggering the 10-year conflict. “Is Oenone less of a hero than Menelaus?” asks Calliope. “He loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him, costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans and slaves. Oenone loses her husband and she raises her son. Which is the more heroic act?”

Some women, such as the Amazon Penthesilea, do fight. In his poem about this legendary warrior, Robert Graves turned her into a naked corpse with which Achilles has sex after battle. Haynes, who has considered the evidence from amphorae that show Greek warriors respectfully bearing fallen Amazons from the field, dispenses with the necrophiliac flourishes to write her a more emotionally revealing ending. Having killed the warrior queen, her Achilles realises “he had finally committed the one act he would regret. This woman was his mirror image.”

The canny Odysseus, too, has met his match in his clever wife Penelope, whose letters to her absent husband (a device Haynes takes from Ovid’s Heroides) supply some of the novel’s wittiest touches. Though waylaid by monsters and enchantresses, he tries hard to return to her once the war is over – but not, she feels, hard enough. In a nice twist, Haynes has her listening to a recitation of the Odyssey as Homer develops it, with its alarming updates on Odysseus’s progress (or lack of it). Why is he dallying with the seductive Calypso on her remote island? What’s all this detail the blind poet includes about the homely cedar logs the nymph burns in her cave? “You used to have a home on Ithaca, of course, but perhaps our logs weren’t quite up to your current standards. Her cave is surrounded by thick woodlands, apparently, which sounded so much like a euphemism when the bard first sang it that I threatened to have him flogged.”

Calliope insists that Penelope’s fortitude in waiting 20 years for her husband “also takes a hero’s disposition” – and the fact that Homer’s Achilles chooses an early death rather than the drawn-out sentence of an obscure old age suggests that she has a point. “I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” concludes the wily muse. This subversive reseeing of the classics is a many-layered delight.

• Elizabeth Lowry’s novel Dark Water is published by Riverrun. A Thousand Ships is published by Mantle (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Elizabeth Lowry

The GuardianTramp

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