Summary: a gripping, exquisitely written retelling of the tales of Troy and the aftermaths of war
Conceptually A Thousand Ships is similar to Pat Barker’s stunning retelling of the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls. Both focus on the Trojan war from female points of view and consequently give radical new perspectives on these ancient tales and on the pity of war itself. But whereas Barker focuses on one woman, Briseis, Natalie Haynes ranges much more widely across time and dramatis personae.
Parts of the book are very funny – notably Penelope’s letters to the absent Odysseus, and the shenanigans of the gods for whom, like contemporary geo-political strategists, humans are mere playthings. Parts of the book, such as the stories of Iphigenia and Polyxena, are particularly bleak. But in giving voice to Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, and the others Haynes reminds the readers of how war reverberates across geographies and generations, and that its casualties are not confined to the battlefields.
Haynes describes the book as a novel and it certainly has the unity of purpose and vision that one would expect of a novel. But the shifting focus and tone as it moves between the various narrators and protagonists also put me in mind of Tim O’Brien’s superb collection of inter-related short stories of the war in Vietnam, The Things They Carried.
However one wishes to classify the book’s structure, the result is extraordinary. It may not carry the same ultimate emotional punch as The Silence of the Girls, which comes from spending so long with one person, but the tragedies of Polyxena, Cassandra, Andromache, Iphigenia and the rest are still hauntingly portrayed. And at the bottom of the carnage some hope glimmers still.