Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

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There are so many ways of telling a war: the entire conflict can be encapsulated in just one incident. One man’s anger at the behaviour of another, say… But this is the 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.

A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes’s retelling of the Trojan War and its aftermath through the voices of myriad women on both sides of the conflict, struggles under the weight of its own good intentions. First of all, the book is much too aware of what it’s trying to do, and Haynes can’t resist the temptation to use Calliope, the ‘muse’ of the famous opening lines of the Iliad (‘Sing, O Muse, of the wrath of Achilles’) to tell us why these female voices are important. The quote above is just one example of Calliope awkwardly spelling out what was already effectively communicated through the framing of this story. Second, because Haynes wants to fracture the narrative through multiple women rather than focus on a few, the novel too often feels directionless and choppy. This can be a common risk when dealing with retellings of myths and legends (I also found Madeline Miller’s Circe too episodic, although overall it is a more interesting novel). Because women are only prominent in a few of the surviving texts, Haynes has to spread her net wide to catch her narrators, and this makes the book’s scope too big – we cover the entire siege of Troy and the full Odyssey, alongside extra stories from less well-known texts, such as the tale of the Amazon Penthesilea.

And thirdly… Pat Barker’s far superior The Silence of the Girls, which also retells the siege of Troy and which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize last year, was criticised for turning away from its female narrator, Briseis, for long periods of time to focus on Achilles, but now I’ve read A Thousand Ships, I’m even more convinced that Barker made the right narrative choices. Because women are simply not present for many of the key events of the Iliad and the Odyssey, this book contains a lot of awkward, compressed narration where characters tell us about events that they didn’t witness themselves. Sometimes, this works. Near the end of the novel, Haynes gets very clever with the prophetess Cassandra, who has been somewhat under-utilised up to this point, and uses her gift of foretelling the future to allow her to watch events as if she is replaying a film (‘Cassandra gave a low moan. This part always made her sick’). Indeed, if this whole novel had been narrated from Cassandra’s perspective, it could have been quite the ride.

But because most of the characters don’t possess Cassandra’s supernatural abilities, this narrative trick usually fails. I especially disliked the Odyssey narrated as a series of letters from Penelope to Odysseus, with Penelope retelling her husband’s exploits having heard about them second-hand through a bard. It’s bad enough that Penelope is an incredibly annoying narrator, with too many ‘witty’ proto-feminist asides (‘Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in her [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband, and such behaviour would be beneath you’) but, on reflection, I started to think that this narrative undermined the point of this book. If women at home are as important as men at war, why didn’t Haynes focus on Penelope’s trials, and ignore what Odysseus is up to?

Haynes gave herself a mammoth task, and while I’m impressed by her ambition, I wasn’t sure that she chose the correct structure to support her book. She delivers some brilliant set-piece chapters, but I couldn’t get on board with this novel as a whole, largely because it felt too meta, too self-aware, and too convinced that it’s doing something more original than it actually is.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. This is number nine. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; and How We Disappeared.

27 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: A Thousand Ships

  1. Very well argued. I avoid myth retellings wherever possible, unless they’re really subtle and updated to the present day (like Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under). The one I did try, Bright Air Black — because I have loved most of David Vann’s other work — was awful.

    You’re really steaming through the longlist! Are you able to do much work from home?

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    • Interesting. I actually really like straight retellings, though have had too much of the Trojan war and the Odyssey of late 🙂 I find modern myth-inspired novels very hit and miss (I couldn’t get on with Everything Under).

      I can pretty much do my entire job from home, as a research-only postdoc… I’m catching up here on books from the longlist that I’d already started before the crisis fully hit. I’m also lucky that I had read so many of the longlisted titles before it was announced.

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      • I think I had it in mind that you were a lecturer. I’m sorry if I’ve made some silly comments about your work life based on my ignorance!

        If you had to choose just one Greek myth retelling that did what it set out to do really well, which would it be? I’ll read that one and ignore all the rest 🙂

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        • Ha, not to worry at all! I have had a series of fixed contracts at different universities in the past few years that have switched between teaching and research. I am currently research-only with no teaching at Newcastle (but I did teach one module at Queen Mary in the autumn term, to make it even more confusing!)

          I loved Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles back in 2011, but it is on my re-read list, so I’ll have to see if it stands up to scrutiny 🙂

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  2. Great review! And I agree on so many points, especially that Barker’s book is by far superior. I was super sceptical about this book and I think my lowered expectations made me enjoy this more than I otherwise would have. I agree with the comments on Penelope’s parts but here the audiobook narration really worked for me so I didn’t mind as much.
    I was actually quite glad to not spend too much time with Cassandra – because she is one of my all-time favourite characters and I am not convinced Haynes could have done her justice in a way that would not have annoyed me, although the one chapter we got from her did indeed work fairly well.

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  3. Great review! I’m hoping to read this one soon. The multitude of female voices here was the biggest draw for me with this particular retelling, so it is disappointing to see that that aspect doesn’t hold up in execution. It does seem a very ambitious choice, so perhaps that was inevitable, sadly.

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  4. I haven’t read this yet but I’m conflicted in my expectations – I’m a sucker for any kind of Greek myth retelling but this sounds so painfully on the nose (that Calliope quote… no) that I’m not sure it will work for me. I was getting so frustrated last year with all of the criticisms of the Achilles sections of TSOTG – especially because ‘it can’t be a feminist retelling if there are men’ is just… not an argument I can take seriously. I thought Achilles sections were necessary because if you aren’t familiar with the original, so much of the background narrative simply DOES NOT MAKE SENSE without the contextualization that we get from his POV. Your review of this definitely convinced me even further that she made the right choice there.

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    • There seems to be quite a bit of confusion about narration. Sometimes, I see people assuming that e.g. a feminist novel can’t be narrated by a man because it isn’t ‘giving voice’ to a woman – forgetting that none of these people are real and no actual women are being silenced! I’ve actually written a post that’s partly about this that I need to get around to posting.

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