A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

Having read and adored Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, I was in the mood for another re-telling of the Trojan War told from a female perspective. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes has garnered a fair amount of attention and I was drawn to the concept of focusing on several women’s stories, not just one. It’s a brave endeavour, but I don’t think Haynes managed to pull it off.

A Thousand Ships opens with a chapter told from the point of view of Creusa, who wakes in the night to find that her city is burning to the ground around her. She does not know the whereabouts of her son or husband. One can only imagine the panic that would be coursing through someone in this situation. However, what should have been an intense, frenetic start to this book lacked any urgency within the writing. Haynes told me that Creusa was scared, but the text did not show this. An otherwise frantic scene was reduced to a matter-of-fact narration.

One of the drawbacks of telling a story from so many points of view is the inevitable fact that some perspectives will appeal more than others. I genuinely enjoyed the chapters on Briseis, Chryseis, and Cassandra. These three women felt the most real and I could have happily read a book that just focused on them. Cassandra is a fascinating mythological character and I spent a good portion of the book waiting to get back to her story.

By contrast, some perspectives were forgettable or tedious. I had high hopes for Penelope’s story, but I never got to know her. She recounts Odysseus’ travels on his convoluted journey home. I already know about the adventures of Odysseus; I wanted to hear about her. How did Penelope spend those twenty years without her husband? What were the other relationships in her life like? Penelope simply felt like a vessel through which to tell Odysseus’ story. I couldn’t get invested. I pushed through these chapters just to get back to the storylines that I cared about.

This novel is a great concept, but perhaps the scope was too broad. If Haynes had focused on fewer characters and refined their voices it could have been a great book, but I found myself dissatisfied. The character whose emotions felt most real to me was Cassandra; I would have been happy if the book had only focused on her. The writing style also left me uninspired. It wasn’t bad, but it was flat at times when it should have been fast-paced or hysterical. Overall this book was fine and parts of it did entertain me, but it did not live up to my high expectations and I was left disappointed.

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