A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes ★★★★☆

Read 11/18/19 – 11/24/19

This is the first book I chose to read for Buzzwordathon 5.0, and you can read more about why I choose A Thousand Ships there!

11/20/19, Page 134

I’m making good progress on this. It is early Wednesday morning and I’m already over half way to my daily goal (50 pages/day). The novel is well written and easy to enjoy. I am not entirely sure who our narrator is. We are getting excerpts from Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and she keeps referring to the “poet” recording this epic. I wonder whether this is the poets narrative, whether that be Haynes or Homer, or if this is the epic directly from Calliope as told to Homer. Early in the novel Calliope refers to the story and the poet:

I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused, and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter…It’s not her story…It’s their story.

Calliope, Chapter 5, Page 40-41, Natalie Haynes

That quote really encapsulates the story. It seems to be a collection of stories about women on both sides of the war. They’re tales from before, during, and even after. Haynes approach of jumping from perspective and time is surprisingly effective. Alone, it’s easy to get lost in any one story, but as a whole, they all come together naturally.

At one point, the Calliope becomes irked by the poet as if the story is too tragic. This is in fact a story of loss, on all sides, but why is it that a man’s death is considered an epic but a women’s is a tragedy? To understand the price of war, we have to understand more than those who die (the “heroes”), but those who live as well. Soon after the fall of Troy, the women are captured and described as follows:

None of the women wept. The dead husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were fresh wounds to them all… But all knew that they would never know solitude again. When a war was ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.

Chapter 3, page 33-34, Natalie Haynes

It is easy to sympathize with the Trojans. Although, that doesn’t make the Greeks the monsters of this tale because the pain doesn’t stop with the Trojan women. That is how it is so easily to mistake this epic for a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean they can ignored.

It does hurt, I whispered. It should hurt. She isn’t a footnote, she’s a person. And she – all the Trojan women – should be memorialized as much as any other person. Their Greek counterparts too.

Calliope, Chapter 12, Page 109, Natalie Haynes.

“Their Greek counterparts too” is a key part of the story as well. The pain extends to the winners and losers, so who is the villain here? Only time will tell for sure. However, it certainly seems as though the villains are the men so lost in their jealousy, greed and anger. There is one part where the king of the Greeks Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter to Artemis for wind (this is Greek retelling, so I don’t consider this a spoiler). It comes right after these statements by Calliope and after so much time is spent on the pain of the Trojan women. This the perfect illustration of how well Haynes has structured this story to reveal what is already known in a light.

Finished 11/24/19

I really enjoyed reading A Thousand Ships. It brought life to a story that I am only loosely familiar with, and I leave it feeling not only inspired to try other retellings, but with an improved understanding of the story as a whole. Haynes acknoweldges how she takes some creative licenses where necessary. However, that is for the outermost parts of the story, so it probably stands well as a true telling of the Trojan War.

What it does different is re-frame our perception of the war and the people in it. What does it mean to be a hero? Cleary, the men who fight, win or lose, are often seen as heroes, depending on your perception. What Hayne’s does is try, and I think succeeds, to convey the heroism of the women. Whether they won or lost, everyone suffered. It is in how we handle this suffering that heroes can be found. It’s so easy to disregard the women, but it seems as though they’re story is the more harrowing one.

Many of the women in this story convey the loss that is so easily overlooked in these tales. We see the winners and losers in war, but it is through the women that we see the true extent. That is why I think this is such an effective story. Considering the scope, it is a difficult task to tell this story, but I think Haynes did it well, overall.

It almost reads like collection of short stories interlaced (forgive me if I mentioned this earlier, I don’t remember), but it flows rather seamlessly. Each story is told, not necessarily linearly, as it comes to the forefront. At times that involves going back in time to give context. This is all being told by the Muse goddess, Calliope. I don’t have a problem with this; it works well as a way of structuring the narrative. However, I can’t help but feel it becomes a little heavy handed. It is as if we aren’t capable of piecing together the greater narrative without the author, through Calliope, holding our hand through it.

You can see what I mean from the quotes I give before, and the novel ends with a note from the author Calliope to bring it to a close:

I have sung of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, the ignored, the untold…They have waited to have their story told, and I will make them wait no longer.

Calliope, Chapter 43, Page 339

The question becomes how much is too much, and does this type of narration take away from the story? For me, it felt like a bit much, even though I did enjoy Calliope’s snarky attitude toward the poet. That said, it isn’t a major issue I have with the novel. My only other issue, again, comes from how Hayne’s structured the story.

Hayne’s method of telling Penelope’s story as a series of letters of her “talking” to Odysseus. In doing so, we get her reaction to Odysseus’ journey (AKA his story) as told by the bards. While I enjoy her quippy commentary, this read less like Penelope’s story and more like a retelling of Odysseus. This story is spread out in a series of letters over the ten years it takes Odysseus to get home after the war end, and every time, I can’t help but ask if this is necessary. Am I getting Penelope’s story or just exciting filler? That sounds harsh, but I have to believe there was a more effective means to tell her story than just having her narrate the same old story we know about Odysseus.

I love Penelope as a character, so perhaps that is evidence of it doing what it was supposed to. Nevertheless, I’m left wanting more. It is very likely I read Margaret Atwood’s retelling of her story, the Penelopiad. I’m also intrigued by Odysseus, so I will probably explore other stories about him (perhaps Ullysses by James Joyce or just watch the film by the same name, which I realize is not an adaption of the book.

My desire to keep the mythology going hopefully shows that I did love this book, despite my stated issues. 4/5 stars.

4 thoughts on “A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes ★★★★☆

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