A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Read: 13 - 23 August 2020
Release year: 2019
This book was my Rare Birds Book Club choice for August. The Rare Birds Book Club gives you a choice between two books every month. You do not know exactly which books they are, but you can choose from two book descriptions. All of the books are written by female authors and feature women as the protagonist(s). At the end of the month, you can discuss the book with the other members on their website.
Natalie Haynes' A Thousand Ships is a retelling of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective. There isn't really a big plot throughout the book as all the chapters are little stories on their own. Most of the stories are about the wives and daughters of the male warriors involved in the war, but some also include goddesses, a muse and the Amazons, for example. The male characters, who were depicted as heroes in Homer's books about the Trojan War, do feature in the stories, but in this book they are only supporting characters.
But this is a women's war, just as much as it is the men's, and the poet will look upon their pain - the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men - and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all. They have waited long enough for their turn.
Some of the women who recur in several chapters include the Trojan women: Hecabe, wife of king Priam of Troy, her daughters Polyxena and Cassandra, and her daughter-in-law and wife of Hector, Andromache. Their story takes place after the conclusion of the war, when their husbands have all been killed and they have been captured by the Greeks. Hecabe finds out that all of her sons are dead, even the one she had sent away to hide under a different name. Polyxena is sacrificed as a gift to war hero Achilles who died in battle. Andromache's newborn son is killed for fear of seeking revenge on the Greeks in the future. Cassandra, who has visions about the past and future, is enslaved by Agamemnom and later murdered by his wife.
Another recurring character is Penelope, wife of Odysseus, king of Ithaca and the hero in Homer's Odyssey. Her chapters are the contents of letters she has written from the day her husband left home to join the war until the day he returned home, a period of 20 years. Odysseus was one of the suitors of Helen, described as the most beautiful woman in the world, who took an oath to defend Helen's husband against any quarrels. When Helen was seduced by Paris, son of king Priam of Troy, the Greeks waged a war to get her back and Odysseus was bound to his oath. He survived the war that lasted 10 years, somehow takes another 10 years to return home to Ithaca after the war. His journey home is described in Homer's Odyssey and ridiculed by his wife in her letters in this book. The adventures of Odysseus are seriously absurd, but also so much fun to read. Look them up if you're curious!
Another story that I would like to point out is the one about the wife and daughter of Agamemnom, king of Mycenea. Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra are brought to Aulis under the pretext of marrying war hero Achilles. However, after angering the goddess Artemis, Agamemnom feels the need to sacrifice his own daughter to turn his luck in the war. After the Greeks have won the war and Agamemnom returns to Mycenea, Clytemnestra murders him and his war prize Cassandra, daughter of king Priam of Troy, in revenge for killing their daughter.
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.
There are so many more stories in this book, but these three were the most important ones. Overall I really enjoyed this book, but I didn't think it was epic like it said on the book cover. This book took me back to my Greek lessons in high school, where we covered some of Homer's work. I have always enjoyed these stories as they are truly absurd, but also so much fun. As part of the Rare Birds Book Club, I also have access to an online community where the members can discuss the book. Here, the book club owner also recommended other books in the same genre: Madeline Miller's Song of Achilles and her follow-up Circe, and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls. I might pick those up if I'm in the mood to read about the Greeks and Trojans again.
A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?