A Thousand Ships

Written by Natalie Haynes
Review by Fiona Alison

‘A thousand ships’ conjures up a face familiar to the world, equally admired and derided―that of Helen of Troy. But those thousand warrior-laden ships, plying the waters from Greece to Troy, held in their bows much more than the fate of one woman.

Encapsulating her story with capricious asides from Calliope, Haynes captures the harrowing stories of women both inside and outside of Troy. Beginning her narrative with the sacking of the city, following Priam’s fateful decision to move the Wooden Horse inside the gates, we experience what follows through the women’s emotional journey. Hecabe sits on a melancholy shore with her daughters, beloved Polyxena and scorned Cassandra, and her daughters-in-law, Andromache and Helen, awaiting Menelaus’s momentous decisions. None of them fare well, although Odysseus allows Hecabe a rare opportunity to take revenge on her youngest son’s murderer.

Familiar backstory is woven expertly into the narrative but incorporates new twists. In a wryly humorous exchange, the Gods settle on war, rather than plague, flood, volcano, or earthquake, to cull the excess humans whose weight Gaia can no longer support. We learn of the Golden Apple and the prophecy of Troy’s downfall; Achilles’ slaughter of the Amazon sisters Hippolyta and Penthesilea; his butchery of Hector; Menelaus’ abduction of Chryseis; Penelope’s desperate attempts to hold off unwanted suitors in Odysseus’ absence. All the ancient parts of the tale are here in this extraordinary ode to the courage, stoicism and ‘silence’ of these women. Today we would call the novel a feminist triumph, but for me such modern phraseology seems to clash with the classical beauty of Haynes’s narrative.

For lovers of classical stories, this novel joins the works of Emily Hauser, Madeline Miller and Pat Barker, and the ancient authors of Haynes’s literary inspirations will be applauding from Mount Olympus!