Book of the week: ‘A Thousand Ships’ tells the little-regarded story of overlooked mythological women

Ashley Pelletier, Arts & Life Editor

If you’ve ever studied Greek myth or Homer, the story of “The Iliad” is familiar. The godlike Achilles, the pig-headed Agamemnon, the heartbreaking Helen and the gorgeous Paris all play important roles in Homer’s telling of the Trojan War.

'A Thousand Ships' tells the untold stories of the women in 'The Iliad.' Photo by Betsy Pelletier
‘A Thousand Ships’ tells the untold stories of the women in ‘The Iliad.’ Photo by Betsy Pelletier

However, “The Iliad” was told and later written from a male perspective. Dozens of women in the Trojan War never got their stories shared. A finalist for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, “A Thousand Ships” by Natalie Haynes sets out to fix that.

It was interesting that Haynes chose to use Calliope, the Greek goddess of epic poetry and storytelling, and her journey with a poet, presumably Homer, as the backbone of the story. Calliope talks about how she is sick of hearing the stories of heroic men, so she grants the poet only the stories of women. No matter how distraught the stories make the poet, Calliope continues to push them onto him.

“A Thousand Ships” has different chapters that represent the perspectives of different women including slaves, goddesses and queens. Haynes bounces between all the characters, but finds a way to make the story flow well nonetheless.

A particularly interesting choice is that Haynes does not include the perspective of Helen in the story because she is the only female of true significance in “The Iliad.” Her story has been told, it is others’ turn.

Clytemnestra’s plotting to and murdering her husband, Agamemnon, is a surprisingly sympathetic story. It’s even more impactful after the story of her daughter, Iphigenia,

who was murdered by her father in a sacrifice for the goddess Artemis. Iphigenia’s story is striking because of her blind hope in Agamemnon that ultimately caused her death.

Another impactful story was the one of the Trojan women. Once the Greeks sacked Troy and killed the men, the women and girls were collected and set to be divided up as slaves. The Trojan story is primarily told through Hecabe (later known as Hecuba), the wife of Priam and the queen of the Trojans, as she thinks about what is to come. It is intense to read when she discovers the death of her final son who she avenges by murdering Polymestor, the man who killed him.

Haynes does not hold back in “A Thousand Ships.” The women in the story are not spared from the realities of war and neither is the reader. They bear witness as Cassandra, daughter of Hecabe, is raped, Andromache, the widow of Hector, is made to throw their baby from the walls of Troy and young Chryseis is forced to drug Agamemnon to keep him away from her.

While this book is not for the faint of heart, the writing is too good to dismiss. “The Iliad” has been around for thousands of years, yet Haynes gives a fresh take on the story that is even more heartfelt and gut-wrenching than the original. Homer’s tale may be one of warriors and soldiers, but Haynes’ is one of the unsung heroes of the Trojan War. They may be fictional, but they are a haunting representation of women’s experiences in the ancient world as we understand them.