‘She’s not a footnote, she’s a person’ [book review]

A review of A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Last week saw the announcement of the Women’s Prize for Fiction – for which many congratulations to Maggie O’Farrell, on whom I have more than a bit of a crush – just as, coincidentally, I was reading one of the shortlisted titles. Natalie Haynes’s A Thousand Ships appealed to me principally because ever since my young-adult reading days I’ve had a thing for the story of Troy, and her feminist angle sounded intriguing. I don’t read much historical fiction at all now, but as it turned out this novel is contemporary in all but the most essential elements of its Ancient Greek setting. Sharply observed, witty and intelligent, Haynes’s retelling of a well-known legend has a fierce quality to it that can’t help but be absorbing.

A Thousand Ships Natalie Haynes

Having begun like this, I proceed to say that I did struggle with the novel initially. The second chapter – the first, at little over a page, reads more like a preface – is dramatic, certainly, but ultimately fails to reflect what the novel will become. For me, it lacked the nuance of later chapters, and when followed in quick succession by three much shorter chapters told from different points of view caused concern that the story was going to be too fragmented for me to enjoy fully. I’m generally a fan of fragmented narration, but there didn’t seem to be very much story going on at all here.

Part of the problem, I realised, was that I expected a story. Expected the myth I have read often, in different forms; expected the classic tropes of a plot that follows beginning, middle, end. But the total deconstruction of a legendary story is the point here, of course, and once I had got over my own expectations I found myself able to settle down and enjoy the ride more. Haynes is a consummate storyteller, good at crafting a sense of setting and characters with whom we can instantly engage, and the constant shifting of viewpoint gradually became something to look forward to. Occasionally she returns to certain characters – Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, for example, or the ‘Women of Troy’ chapters which are largely told from the point of view of Queen Hecabe – but on the whole each chapter is a story in its own right, a multitude of voices making up a choir. In structuring the novel thus, Haynes is doubling down on her point: there aren’t just two ways to tell a story (male and female); instead, there are myriad.

This inherent multiplicity is altogether subtler than the feminist overtones of the novel, which occasionally can veer towards being a little too blatant. All the same, I found myself enjoying these stark reminders that history tends to take the male point of view, and I was grateful to Haynes for introducing me to a raft of new characters I had never heard of before. ‘She’s not a footnote, she’s a person,’ she writes in the voice of Calliope, the Muse supposedly forcing a male author to pen this narrative – a slightly bald statement, but a true one. Among my favourite stories were those of Penthesilea, the Amazon princess, and the nymph Oenone, characters who might wander through the pages of the Classics but are rarely afforded any space. Here, they are given a chance to shine, and I found myself wanting to read novels about them in their own right.

No story set in Ancient Greece would be complete without mention of the gods (especially not the legend of Troy, for which the gods were largely responsible) and it is in these chapters that Haynes’s playful side comes to the fore. The bickering on Mount Olympus is captured with a good deal of charm, putting a refreshing new spin on the figures I learned about at primary school. She also adopts an unusual approach to characters like Cassandra, whose prophetic gifts are used to relate the future of others, most notably her mother. Again we have that multiplicity of narration: Hecabe’s story could quite easily have been told from the protagonist’s point of view, as many of the chapters are, but Haynes has deliberately opted for an alternative. In much the same vein, she chooses to tell the story of Odysseus through Penelope’s letters to her husband – an interesting choice of narrative device, which though both engaging and understandable as a framework was at times out of kilter with the rest of the novel. Stylistically, a simple internal monologue directed to her husband might have seemed more streamlined.

‘Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic,’ muses Haynes through Calliope, and though her women are still occasionally famed as tragic figures – ‘because the Spartan king had lost his queen, a hundred queens lost their kings’ – there is more than an air of the epic about this corrective retelling. Fire and brimstone rain down upon Troy from the very beginning; there are scenes of gruesome violence, sexual assault and emotional abuse. To her credit, Haynes is never heavy-handed; she intersperses these episodes of bloodshed with moments of lightness or simple humanity through which the more traumatic scenes become all the more effective. And despite its fragmented form, the pacing of the narrative is on the whole excellent, making A Thousand Ships an effortlessly absorbing read.

It is a bold and accomplished retelling, this, and one that I appreciated: it gives rise to the question of how many other classic (or less classic) stories could be told in a different way. Haynes is, however, at her most compelling when she adopts a less forceful tone – in the less epic words of this novel, the ones that could so easily be overlooked. Of all of them, the phrase that most stuck with me was an almost throwaway comment made by the herald Talthybius to a captured Andromache, when he comes to take her baby to the men who will murder him and she asks to die as well. ‘“You do not own your life to give it up,”’ he tells her with a sigh – a small, sharp sentence that stabs like a knife.

A thousand ships, a thousand ways to tell a story. Deftly woven and researched down to the minutest detail, Natalie Haynes’s novel conveys her message loud and clear, offering an accessible and engaging new take on an old story. Anyone encountering Troy for the first time within these pages is a lucky reader indeed; for the rest of us, this is a valuable lesson in throwing wide the doors to imagination. Much like the Trojan horse, each legend contains within it countless stories. It’s up to us to listen to them.

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