A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Rich and Ambitious Retelling

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A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes Book Cover Image

Rating: Blue StarBlue StarBlue StarBlue Starblue-star 2

Category: Literary fiction, retelling

Format: Hardback – from local independent bookshop

Content Warnings: Graphic violence, suicide, grief, enslavement, sexual assault and rape, trauma, familial abuse, misogyny

Summary:

“Sing, Muse, he said, and I have sung … I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold.”

The names of the Trojan war heroes echo down the centuries – Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon – while the women drawn into its devastation remain a footnote in all these songs and stories.

In A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes attempts to imagine, not one, but many voices for these women. From the most powerful goddess to the lowliest priest girl that serves her, each is irrevocably changed by the men’s war, each has a story. And that story deserves to be told.

Review:

First Page Impressions

As soon as I started A Thousand Ships, the abundance of voices and perspectives reminded me of another firm favourite – Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. A handy character list is included at the beginning which helped me keep track of who’s who!

This polyvocal approach certainly kept the novel fast-paced as I avidly uncovered more and more women and their stories. While some central characters I was already familiar with, notably the goddesses and the group of Trojan women, others were an exciting revelation to me, such as the untold tale of Paris’ wife, Oenone.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes Book Review Pinterest Graphic

Final Page Reflections

Inevitably, there were some perspectives overall that stood out to me, but with such richness every individual reader will likely find a different character they especially identify with. Penelope’s loaded sarcasm in letters to her AWOL husband, Odysseus, was an absolute personal highlight!

My least favourite points of view were those of the goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. I was surprised to read in the afterword that the author had the most fun writing them, as I didn’t find them particularly distinguishable from one another.

Yet with so many characters feeding their voices into this novel, it’s a real feat for Haynes to make the vast majority of them so individual, from the dignity of Cassandra to the cold rage of Clytemnestra. The interspersed commentary of Calliope, muse of epic poetry, unites all the women’s testimonies into a cohesive context and gives them a political edge.

“But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain”

Mood

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes Mood Cloud

Diversity and Representation

For my dissertation at the moment I am researching the African and Asiatic influences on Ancient Greece (which is often held up as the paragon of white civilisation). It would be great to see this rich diversity and heritage explored more in white feminist retellings of the classical myths.


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Themes

  • Myth and storytelling
  • Power
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Motherhood
  • War
  • Grief
  • Family and friendship
  • Savagery vs civilisation

Beyond the Book

One of the more unique elements of A Thousand Ships that I appreciated is the realistic representation of women’s villainous side as well as their victimisation.

Even the most virtuous aren’t immune to some (understandable) fits of jealousy, particularly towards the infamous Helen of Troy, with her ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. My eyes would probably be rolling too!

Of course I delight in every admirable woman role model encountered in stories, but on the other end of the spectrum, I call for more deliciously chilling female baddies!

Discussion Questions

  1. Which of the perspectives in this novel did you engage with most? How about your least engaging?
  2. Who is your favourite female villain in mythology or literature? Do you enjoy reading about female villains?
  3. In A Thousand Ships the author seeks to give a voice to as many women as possible. Had you heard of these women before, or were some of their names and stories new to you?

Favourite quote:

“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.”

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes Quote

Read if: You’re in the mood for a rich and ambitious feminist retelling.

To get your next retelling fix, I highly recommend The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker!


Have you read A Thousand Ships? What’s your favourite retelling of Ancient Greek mythology? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!


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16 thoughts on “A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: Rich and Ambitious Retelling

  1. Excellent review. 🙂 Haven’t heard of this book before, so, thanks for putting it on my radar. Men and women are equally affected by war, yet, it is only the men whose praises are sung. Thanks to Natalie for trying to balance the equation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Liebster Award

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