Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Natalie Haynes Flips our Point of View
Classic stories from Greek antiquity have stuck around to become known to people from all cultures and nationalities for one particular reason. They capture and illustrate basic truths about the human condition as simply and concisely as possible. Thus, it’s not surprising inquisitive authors such as Natalie Haynes want to deepen their exploration, as she does in her latest novel, A Thousand Ships.
We all know the story revolving around the Trojan horse, at least in its broad strokes… at least I’ll assume as much going forward. If the story in question has somehow escaped your field of vision or your memory of it is shoddy, then I would recommend brushing up on it before diving into this book. For reasons which will soon become apparent, foreknowledge of the story is recommended.
If there is one aspect of these classic stories which doesn’t translate well to modern times, it’s the lack of focus placed on female characters. While it’s certainly understandable considering how society functioned at the time those stories were written, I think it would be disingenuous to deny women likely had a greater role to play than the old tales would lead us to believe.
In A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes flips our perspective on the matter of the Trojan war, showing it instead from the perspectives of the many women who were involved in it one way or another. From Penelope, Cassandra, and Penthesilea to the common women of Troy who saw their city go up in flames, their perspectives are used to fuel this new retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Heroics of Women in A Thousand Ships
The first thing I’d like to address is the knee-jerk reaction which I had, and I assume many other male readers just had as well. In a time when the fight for gender equality can sometimes take absurd, ridiculous and even harmful shapes, it’s a little easy to overlook a novel such as this one and think of it as nothing more than a feminist manifesto.
I’ll be honest, I was rather apprehensive of this novel at first, but I decided to give it a shot for the glowing recommendations surrounding it. It didn’t take me long to see my worries in this regard were wrong and unfounded; while it is a retelling of a classic story from the women’s perspective, feminism certainly isn’t the focus here.
Rather, Natalie Haynes simply seeks to explore the underused perspectives when it comes these classic mythological stories, and she does so in a brilliant manner which doesn’t feel forced in the slightest. While the bulk of the book focuses on Penelope and Cassandra, giving them their own chapters, we also get to meet plenty of lesser-known characters who are also given their part to play in the story.
One of the most important elements in this novel, in my opinion at least, is Hayne’s demonstration of what guise feminine heroism in times of war can take. When we think of heroic men in war, we invariably think of soldiers shedding blood on the front lines. However, we often forget the women back home and the contributions they make behind the scenes.
Once again, I want to reiterate none of it feels forced, nor does it contradict the original tale. The author doesn’t try to make her characters into heroes by making them unbelievably masculine, something many are guilty of when trying to write strong female characters. Rather, they become heroes through the realistic trials they endure, harrowing in different ways from the experience on the front.
The Ones Left Behind
The perceived heroic aspects of any war quickly make it into history books and tales of glory, but they’re often a smokescreen for what makes up the majority of any armed conflict: loss of human life. In the aftermath of any war all too many women, children and old folks are left behind to either rebuild the country from ruin or suffer under the fists of their conquerors.
I felt like this theme was a heavily prevalent one in this book, often rearing its head whenever talks of eternal glory began to spring up, and I feel like any book or novel dealing with war ought to put it in its centre stage.
Natalie Haynes does a superb job at detailing the perspective of those who are left to watch their beloved city of Troy burn from within, and her descriptions surrounding the ravages of war are poignant and memorable for the profound emotions they elicit. I especially enjoyed her depiction of how different women reacted to the invasion, some aiming to keep their dignity, others craving blood.
Personally, I found the story of Penelope to have been the most engaging part of the book, even carrying in it bits of dark humour here and there. Watching her develop over ten years through the letters she sends to Odysseus, berating him for his failure to return from a quest for vain glory, gave a new, interesting and welcome perspective on the Odyssey.
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If anything, A Thousand Ships certainly makes you wonder about the values celebrated in older stories, how shallow and near-sighted they can be, especially when juxtaposed with a more modern perspective. The teachings they imparted would perhaps be better left in the past when they were written.
The Final Verdict
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes is a superb retelling of classic mythology focusing on the underused women’s perspective, casting a new and thought-provoking light on old stories we know by heart.
If you’re into classic mythology being retold through different perspectives and are looking for a solid work of ancient historical fiction, then I think you’ll absolutely love what this book has to offer.
Natalie Haynes is an English comedian, broadcaster and author with distinct careers in radio, journalism, television and literature. Her 2007 children’s novel The Great Escape won the 2008 PETA Proggy award, which was followed by a non-fiction book, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life.
Her third novel, A Thousand Ships, had the distinction of being shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.