A Thousand Ships
Natalie Haynes
Mantle
368pp
Hardback, £16.99

When Aeneas left Troy with his son and father and a group of followers in tow, he left behind a city in flaming ruins and among those ruins his wife, Creusa. Virgil, in his great epic the Aeneid, gives us a lot of detail about what comes next for the Trojan hero and about the burning city, but Creusa herself receives less attention.

Now classicist and broadcaster Natalie Haynes (whose previous literary offerings include The Children of Jocasta, a retelling of the Oedipus and Antigone myths) fleshes out Creusa's final moments in her moving novel A Thousand Ships. Creusa is just one of many women in this new work, and, although she appears briefly, her story is told powerfully from her own perspective. The reader is with Creusa every step of the way as she, in the middle of the night, realises her husband has left the city as they had planned and tries to figure out how best to manoeuvre through the dark, infernal streets full of marauding Greeks.

Haynes draws on her impressive knowledge of mythology, ancient literature, and ancient art to give Creusa and other women (some minor players in the traditional narratives of events surrounding the Trojan War) their due. Each chapter focuses on a particular woman or group of women affected by and involved in some way in the vicious Trojan War – Greeks and Trojans, mortal and divine.

Punctuating the accounts of the background, brutal events and harrowing aftermath of the all-encompassing conflict are appearances by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and who explicitly reminds us, and the bard who has called on her, that war affects all, and the heroism of women is as worthy of poetry as the fighting of soldiers.
Among the women we encounter are Penthesilea, the Amazon queen killed by Achilles, Oenone, the forgotten mountain nymph wife of Paris, and Theano, who, when Troy is about to fall, successfully convinces her husband Antenor, an advisor of King Priam, to plot with the Greeks and secure her family's safety. For some figures there are only snippets in ancient texts to work with, while for others there is a lot of material.

This is true for Odysseus' long-suffering wife Penelope, and for her chapters, Haynes follows in the footsteps of Ovid's Heroides and presents us with a series of letters from Penelope to her errant husband, as she responds to the bards' songs about what amounts to heroically irresponsible behaviour.

As well as the novel's chilling tales of enslavement, sacrifice and countless killings, there are wonderful details such as the rich description of the earrings presented to the nymph Thetis (mother of Achilles) by her mortal groom much to the envy of Aphrodite. These are based on earrings from the Aegina Treasure, that are now on display at the British Museum.

Similarly, Haynes charmingly relates how Themis, an old goddess of divine order, is sitting on a tripod with her feet not touching the floor when Zeus visits her, a pose that can be seen in a 5th-century BC red-figure kylix now in Berlin.

There is much to enjoy in these details, which help embed the reader in the visual world of ancient Greek myth. There is much to enjoy, too, in the inner thoughts and petty actions of feuding Olympian goddesses, countering the relentless sorrows of the war's victims.

Haynes works this balance between mortal and immortal well, and we are even made to feel for Gaia, the mother goddess, burdened by too many humans.

Her deft handling of her characters' varied thoughts and emotions in the face of all the hardships and horrors of war helps make this a thoroughly convincing and touching novel.

Lucia Marchini

 

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