In my review of Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light, I hewed closely to my now rather hoary complaint about the entire trilogy that this latest volume caps: that is, what I perceive to be the essential contradiction between the series’ attention to period detail and the manner in which it conjures a contemporary consciousness for its protagonist. I am among the very small minority for whom this simply does not work; I am a record broken, and unlike the unfixed clock I’m right not even twice a day.
I embarked upon Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships, then, with trepidation: not only is it the latest in a long recent line of feminist retellings of Classical myth (no bad trend, but like any zeitgeist it is one with finite fuel); it is also another novel set in the distant past that could likewise have been tempted to present post-modern personalities within a pre-modern milieu. That I ended up enjoying this novel so much must in part be a function of its contrast with Mantel – because Haynes rather cannily avoids this trap, and her women, while alert to the injustice all around them, would not quite fit in at #metoo rally, either.
Theirs is a fatalism present throughout Classical literature – in the bleak tragedies of Euripedes or the shocking violence of the source myths. Haynes’ women are entirely inured to their society, and in some cases even share its values: Clytemnestra, for example, “never wished to be compared to other women, unless it was for the purpose of demonstrating her vast superiority to the rest of her sex”; Helen, too, does not get off lightly – the text does not try to rehabilitate her so much as show how even other women find her impossible and culpable (“I have not wished anyone dead with quite so such enthusiasm as … Agamemnon,” admits Penelope of the king who takes her husband to war, “and bear in mind that I grew up in Sparta so have spent more time than most with Helen”).
The novel has room, too, for countervailing notes. It is essentially the story of the sack of Troy, but told from many female perspectives. Each one has its own voice and tenor – from the Muse Calliope’s wry impatience (“it is surprising that he hasn’t considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention”) to Penelope’s passive-aggressive and performative faith in her husband (“Obviously you would not have spent, as the bards have it, a year in [Circe’s] halls, living as her husband, for the excellent reason that you are my husband”). Even Helen gets her say: “That was my crime,” she sneers at Hecabe, erstwhile Queen of the Trojans. “To give your handsome son everything he asked for, like everyone else did”.
This polyphony really works. Some of the voices – Calliope and Penelope, yes, but also women who get only one chapter, such as Iphigenia – inevitably linger longer than others, but such is the nature, and indeed strength, of patchwork narratives. The over-riding vision – again, entirely fitting of the source material – is of the abitrariness of fate, the fickleness of the gods. “If her husband had not sought her hand,” observes Briseis, “if the Greek men had not noticed her, she might have remained a free woman. Or she might have been slaughtered where she stood.” The selfishness of the men who have more freedom is of course lampooned and even revenged – when Paris, dying, flees Troy to find the nymph-lover he abandoned a decade prior in favour of Helen, declaring that he is “prostrate before” her magical powers, the spurned woman Oenone remarks, “But for yourself. I cannot heal you, Paris”. But the focus is instead on the hard choices women must make in a world that is unjust: “She was afraid,” Andromache says of Polyxena, who gives herself for sacrifice by the Greek fleet. “But she was more afraid of slavery.”
In other words, A Thousand Ships is a study of women who find themselves in impossible circumstances – much in the way that The Iliad is a poem about warriors whose fates are sealed before they pick up spear or shield. Calliope rolls her eyes at epic poetry – “Too many men telling the stories of men to each other,” she says of it – but what Haynes does here is not therefore rip up the form and replace it with something more amenable to modern sensibility. Instead, she inhabits the mores of the mode and tells the other story that has always sat alongside it. “I know the poet grows weary of these women who appear and disappear from his story,” the Muse admits, “but even he is starting to grasp that the whole war can be explained this way.” In other words, the siege of Troy is the story of pain. Haynes recentres Homer’s focus but somehow in a way that does not invalidate his frame.
This is clever stuff, and especially so since the novel never collapses into the male stories we know so well, nor betrays its emphasis by endorsing the unjust world while inhabiting it. In the story of the traitor Antenor, for instance – who opens the Trojan gates for the waiting Greeks in exchange for his family’s safety – Haynes admits the “behaviour was despicable,” but equally accepts that “there was no denying that he had won a better fate for his women than Priam”. This is a remarkably even-handed novel for one that is avowedly partial – “I have picked up the old stories and I have shake them until the hidden women appear in plain sight. I have celebrated them in song because they have waited long enough,” declares Calliope – and this empathy for the material and the peoples it depicts lends it a sort of moral and philosophical depth that is quite rare in a book that reads so lightly and in so otherwise contemporary a way.
In other words, Haynes has squared the circle Mantel has been wheeling around for years. But – alas! – it is still unlikely, I think, that she will beat out her rival for the Women’s Prize when it is announced in September. The Mirror & the Light has a prose style which the arch and accessible A Thousand Ships does not attempt to match, and that may count for much. But, for this reader at least, Haynes’ core conceit boasts a great deal more internal consistency – and that should count for something too.