Sunday, June 20, 2021

A Thousand Ships, by Natalie Haynes

"This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?" (p. 339)

I've taken my time over this excellent retelling of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women involved, not least because it's at times a gruelling read, full of cruelty and loss.  There's a sequence in which Andromache begs for the life of her baby son, Astyanax, who the Greeks fear will grow up wishing vengeance for the death of his father Hector. Andromache ventures one means after another by which to avoid her baby being hurled from the walls of the city - she will bring him up with no knowledge of his history, or to hate his late father, or she will kill him herself - all to no avail. Or there's Iphigenia. Or Cassandra. Or the dignity of Penelope when, even after the war is over, her husband fails to come home.

There are so many women and perspectives we cover a great deal of ground, piecing together the war, its causes and aftermath, as the Greek survivors stagger home to their various fates. Haynes says some of this is based on surviving ancient texts, some her own invention, and having enjoyed it as a novel I'd now like to reread it as historiography, with extensive footnotes on sources. 

It's also interesting to read this relatively soon after Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, which did something similar but largely from one female gaze. Here, we're in the heads of goddesses, royals and servants - in some cases royals who are then enslaved. It all adds to the richness of the story, and the overpowering sense of horror in what befalls these myriad people.

As Haynes says in her afterword, we tend to think of the Age of Heroes as referring to men, but the women are no less heroic. She makes a good argument against claims that heroes must fight, given that Achilles is no less a hero for spending most of the Trojan War in a sulk. It's got me thinking about the way stories are framed and told more widely. So often the domestic and the epic are treated as if they're opposites; Haynes ably demonstrates how they intertwine. 

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