Barry Unsworth, book review, Cassandra, characterization, Greek myth, Homer, indistinct voices, Natalie Haynes, psychological portrayal, publishing trend, Trojan War, vignettes, women as heroes
Review: A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes
Harper, 2021. 340 pp. $28
Rereading Homer with fresh eyes is like rereading Genesis or Exodus; keep your mind open, and you’ll see something you never considered before. How satisfying that is, even exciting.
But so many publishers these days issue retellings of Greek myths, the trend du jour that everyone’s rushing to capitalize on, that I approached A Thousand Ships with wariness. I’ve tried a few trend-followers du jour, only to put them aside, because the twenty-first-century tone or perspective seems inauthentic, or the writing falls short. If a historical novel attempts to superimpose a modern viewpoint, it’s not a historical novel; and if the narrative employs tropes to express feelings in generic prose, I don’t care what kind of novel it is. I’m not interested.
I prefer retellings that delve deeply enough into the characters’ inner lives so that I can imagine, however briefly, that the foreordained tragedy will not take place. For instance, in Songs of the Kings, Barry Unsworth somehow lets you hope that Agamemnon won’t sacrifice his daughter. In The War at Troy (unfortunately out of print), for a few pages, Lindsey Clarke encourages you to believe that Paris will give the golden apple to Athena and accept the wisdom he desperately needs, rather than bestow the gift on Aphrodite and carry off Helen as his prize. I like how these novelists let their characters, not a political or moral agenda, call the tune.
A Thousand Ships, though a valiant attempt to avoid these pitfalls, doesn’t always succeed, perhaps because the premise overshadows the execution. Granted, it’s an intriguing concept, retelling the Trojan War and its aftermath through women’s voices only, and a story whose time has come. Further, Haynes forthrightly argues that the women are heroic too, not just the men. No argument from me; I’m enrolled.
The first voice we hear belongs to Calliope, muse of epic poetry, presumably being invoked by Homer to sing the same old, same old story about men, as though she has nothing better to do. What a hoot. Following, among others, in no particular order, come Hecabe, Briseis, Chryseis, Cassandra, Penelope, Thetis, Clytemnestra, and several I hadn’t heard of. Many scenes grip me, despite their familiarity. I particularly like the ones involving Briseis and Chryseis, and the part where Clytemnestra welcomes home Agamemnon, the latter a brilliant take on a woman plotting revenge.
I admire Haynes’s knowledge of and grasp of the original texts, and it’s clear that she loves them for themselves, not merely as a stepping-stone for a theme. And when she rethinks the characters in psychological depth, with vivid physical detail, the narrative sings, as with this scene involving Cassandra:
She spoke of one terrible thing after another, one disaster to befall them and then one more and one more.… But soon the slaves would not wait on her, not even under threat of being flogged. Cassandra would tell them of their own impending deaths, and those of their parents or children. And even though it was nonsense — no one believed a word the deranged girl said — it disquieted them. One day, Cassandra was screaming and crying… The details scarcely mattered — and Hecabe had reached across and slapped her hard, across the face. Cassandra had grabbed her hand and held it, shrieking. And Hecabe had slapped her with her left hand until there were bright red finger marks on both of her daughter’s cheeks, with deeper indentations on the right side, from Hecabe’s thick gold rings.
I also love the back story to the Apple of Discord myth, entirely new to me, which involves not only the goddesses’ rivalry, but Zeus’ desire to thin the world’s population with a long war. Why? Because Gaia’s weary of the ever-increasing human despoliation of the planet — an environmental warning that reaches across the centuries, yet fits entirely within its ancient context. All of this feels fresh and compelling.
But A Thousand Ships lacks a coherent narrative, being a collection of vignettes. Whether that makes a novel is open to debate, but, either way, the voices must be distinct. Sometimes, I hear the author rather than individual characters; or the voices fluctuate, as with Penelope’s, at times a woman struggling to remain patient and loving in Odysseus’s absence, and at times, a chorus, a literary device.
In emphasizing female characters in an authentic light, A Thousand Ships has its points. But I hope Haynes’s next effort focuses on a single episode or tale in depth, and that she concentrates more on the presentation than the literary premise. Her afterword suggests that she worries readers won’t accept women as heroes; I say that’s their problem. Let her storytelling carry the day.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.