A Thousand Ships: A book review by Bob Morris

A Thousand Ships: A Novel Hardcover
Natalie Haynes
Harper/An imprint of Harper Collins (January 2021)

This is an epic reading experience unlike any other.

I have never read another book that I enjoyed more that was — at the same time — more difficult to discuss, much less review.  A Thousand Ships is a masterpiece, comparable with other literary hybrids such as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Briefly, here is the situation:

o Natalie Haynes assumes the persona of Calliope (muse of epic poetry) and challenges Homer (author of the Iliad and Odyssey to tell the story of the women who were directly or indirectly involved after a thousand boats filled with warriors and their leaders sailed from Greece to the ancient city of Troy to reclaim Helen, wife of Menelaus. These women were eye-witnesses to a ten-year war that the Greeks won. Then the victors destroyed the city, executed Trojan men and male children who remained, and enslaved all the women.

o Homer replies,”Sing, Muse.” She replies, “Well, do you hear me? I have sung.”

o A Thousand Ships is her “song of the women, the women in the shadows. I have sung of the forgotten, of the ignored, the untold. I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight. I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough…They have waited to have their story told, and I will make them wait no longer.”

o What if Homer declines? “If the poet refuses the song I have offered him, I will take it away and leave him silent. He has sung before: he may not want it and does not need it. But their story will be told, no matter how long it takes. I am ageless: time does not matter to me. All that matters is the telling.”

o Homer again: “Sing, Muse.”

o And Calliope again: “Well, do you hear me? I have sung.”

* * *

As indicated earlier, I think A Thousand Ships is a brilliant achievement.

Keep in mind that it is a novel. It focuses on events that may — or may not — have occurred almost 3,000 years ago, as described by someone who may — or may not — have been a blind poet named Homer.  Even if events actually occurred as described in the two epic poems, it would have been impossible for Natalie Haynes to return in time and interview the Trojan women who survived the destruction of their city, such as Hecabe and Polyxena, or Penelope in Ithaca, or any of the deities such as Athene, Calliope, and Eris.

That said, as is true of very few other literary works, A Thousand Ships offers an epic reading experience and I expect its power and impact as well as relevance to increase each time I re-read it in years to come.




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