Tag Archives: books-of-the-year-2021

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

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If you have not yet read The Golem and the Jinni, stop! Right now! Go back. Read that, then we can talk about the sequel. Read it already? Great. Not yet? Ok, I’ll wait, but not for a thousand years, like some.

You’re back? Cool. Great book, right? So Chava, the golem of book #1 and Ahmad, the jinni of that tale, are a bit older, and a bit wiser. They are also a bit more rounded as characters. We’ll get to them in a bit.

The story begins with an extremely devout rabbi, Lev Altschul (very old school) on the Lower East Side (not the guy from the earlier book) He has come across some ancient texts, books with arcane knowledge. He is not the greatest parent in the world, a widower, much more devoted to his studies than his daughter, Kreindel. She is taken care of by, essentially, a committee of congregation members. But she loves her pop and wants to learn, wants to study. Of course, girls were not welcome to imbibe the texts that Jewish boys were encouraged to learn. She spies on lessons and picks up what she can. As it happens there is a pogrom underway in one of the usual places in Eastern Europe. The rabbi, with the help of those old books, can now do something about it. He determines to send to a rabbi in Lithuania a weapon that can be used to defend oppressed Jews there. He works day and night to construct a golem for them. It does seem that Wecker’s golems always run into transit issues. Instead of heading across the Atlantic, as planned, this one, Yossele, remains in New York, due to an untimely building fire. He awaits only wakening.

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

Speaking of golems, Chava is trying her best to be as human as possible, given her natural limitations.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?


A: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those legends and stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human” in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite. – from LitLovers interview re Book One

Despite being a magical clay being conjured by a spell, Chava still feels the compulsion to help others. And being telepathic allows her to have a pretty good idea of what folks feel, and need. Shutting out the onslaught of telepathic noise remains a challenge, but a much reduced one, as she has learned how to block a lot of it out, and she tries to stay away from overcrowded places. Concerned about people noticing her agelessness, after so long a time at the bakery, where she has been working since she arrived, Chava decides it is wise to move on. After completing a course of study at Teacher’s College, she finds an excellent gig at a Jewish orphanage in Manhattan, teaching cooking.

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

Speaking of hot things, in Book One, Ahmad was mostly an elemental character, all fire and immediate gratification. Book Two shows a bad boy who can still bring the heat, but who has gained considerably more awareness, of himself, and of the world around him. He has grown a sense of decency, personal responsibility, and a need for purpose. He remains in business with Arbeely, the man who had released him from his thousand-year imprisonment in a flask. He molds iron with his bare hands. Business is good, booming even, so they expand to grander quarters, where Ahmad’s smoldering creative ambitions ignite to full blast.

Sleepless in Manhattan, Chava and Ahmad walk the streets and rooftops in the wee hours. They are best friends, committed to exclusivity with each other re the benefits of their connection. The young man enamored of Chava in Book One, her husband, is no more, killed off in that earlier tale. She is rightfully concerned about the downsides of having a husband or bf made of flesh and blood, and who might not live, ya know, forever, not to mention the risk of him discovering what she really is. Ahmad has sworn off humans, after the damage he did to Sophia Winston in the first book.

And, speaking of damaged heiresses, Sophia has been promoted to a top-tier character. She struggles to cope with the affliction that resulted from her getting jiggi with a jinni. I guess you could call it an STD, but not the usual sort. (Even had penicillin been invented, it would not have done the trick.) She cannot get warm. Sophia is convinced that only place where there is any hope of succor is the Middle East. She travels to many ancient sites, in a constant search for local experts in pharmacology able to concoct potions that alleviate her perpetual chill. (I suppose one might see in Sophia’s inability to douse her inner flames a symbol of her carrying the torch for someone. I wouldn’t. But some might.)

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Cleopatra’s Needle, was transported from Egypt and installed in Central Park in 1881 – image from Wikipedia

In case there were not enough magical beings wandering about, Wecker balances the scales, tipped by the weighty presence of Yossele, by adding one more. As it happens, Sophia encounters in her travels yet another fire being, a jinniyeh, Dima. It appears that the iron-bound jinni (Ahmad) is a character of legend in the jinni world. This female jinni has something special about her too, (I mean, aside from being a jinni, and going about her business unimpeded by attire) and is hoping to meet up with the only other jinni she has heard of who is also an outsider in their particular circle. She stands in contrast to Ahmad, presenting as the self-centered ball of fire he used to be.

Everybody wants something. Chava wants to be human; Ahmad wants a purpose; Sophia wants a cure; the jinniyeh wants a compatriot, maybe a partner. And in case that is not enough, Yossele wants to protect his master. Kreindel wants to study Hebrew and learn all that her father had learned. More? Remember Anna, a former workmate of Chava’s at the bakery? Chava had seriously put an end to Anna’s husband whaling on her, and subsequently helped Anna and her son, Toby. Anna is terrified of Chava and wants her to stay away. In this book, Toby is a fifteen-year-old Western Union messenger, who wants to know who his father is, and who that creep in his recurring dreams might be, and what the deal is with Chava and that Arab guy.

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

Wecker has seriously kicked up her game for this novel. There was plenty going in in the first book in terms of discussions about serious questions of religion and morality. That is no less the case in this one, with the exception that these characters are better drawn, more complex, and more interesting. They struggle with ethical dilemmas, and are challenged to make difficult decisions. There are some lovely interactions among them that will make you smile, maybe even recognize similar tete-a-tetes from your own experience.

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

This is not a ha ha funny book, but there are some elements of humor here and there. In a way it is a running joke that Ahmad, while working on a large construction, has continual problems keep the over-sized glass panels he has designed from smashing. Given that the primary ingredient in glass is sand, it seems fair to ask if Ahmad might be trying to build a literal sand-castle.

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Washington Square Park – circa 1907 – image from NY Public Library

Speaking of palaces, not all are hidden. The newly opened Pennsylvania Station, a glorious structure, is seen as a kind of palatial caravansery, a roadside inn for travelers from all over, where information was exchanged and commerce was conducted. It is a favorite spot for Ahmad on his urban peregrinations. He does not tell Chava about it, however, which makes Penn Station a bit of a hidden palace for him. Enough, certainly to merit being shown on the cover of the book. The ancient city of Palmyra, which we visit in Sophia’s wanderings, had once been a center of trade, and had a caravansary, but was mostly a ruin at the time of her visit. Palatial buildings are not the only old-world structures that echo in early 20th century Manhattan. The famous arch in Washington Square Park, erected in 1895, which was featured on the cover of The Golem and the Jinni, is reminiscent of the famous arch of Palmyra. The Greenwich Village arch is encountered again in Book Two. Cleopatra’s Needle, a two-hundred-ton obelisk, originally built in Egypt in the 15th century, was transported to Central Park in 1881. Sophia’s father visits it often.

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

There are many historical touchstones, as the book begins in 1900 and ends with the approach of World War I. Wecker notes the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the 911 of its time, with mass casualties, and people jumping from the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building to keep from being burned alive. We hear news of the start of World War I in Europe, come across the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and see the Arab community in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood beginning its move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We also see some of the anachronistic social and legal norms of the time. Kreindel is not allowed to study what Yeshiva boys can. Chava is not allowed to own property. Women walking alone at night are considered suspect. So the women in Wecker’s stories have to be extra strong.

I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them. – from the Fantasy Literature interview in 2013

Secrecy is a theme that permeates. Chava thinks Ahmad would prefer having a jinniyeh to her, but cannot bring herself to ask him. He is hiding from her what he has learned about a huge sacrifice Arbeely had made for him. Kreindel lies about her age, and is hiding the fact that there is a golem under her control in Manhattan. (For my money, Kreindel is the most intriguing character in the novel, a child with limited tools forced to cope with life and death decisions, in an often hostile environment. She generates both admiration for her tough-as-nails exterior and empathy for her suffering.) Sophia is hiding her need for a special potion. Dima hides from her kind what her special characteristic is. In addition to hiding from humans what she actually is, Chava keeps Riverside Park and the streets she walks by day secret from Ahmad, as he keeps Penn Station secret from her. Ahmad is working on a huge project in his building that he will not let anyone see. I suppose one might see each of these characters as their own walking, talking hidden palaces.

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The Williamsburg Bridge under construction circa 1900-1906 – image from the Library of Congress via Untappedcities.com

The whole Golem/Jinni duology (so far) might have gone in a very different direction. Wecker talks about how it all got started in a lovely interview with the blogger Lady Grey, who has, in fact, been a friend of Wecker’s since childhood. It was during her MFA program that Wecker ran into a problem. She had wanted to write a book of linked stories, family tales of cultural background and immigration. Wecker is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American. She was impressed by how similar their family stories were, and wanted to highlight that.

You don’t pay all that money for them to be nice to you. They’re gonna tell you what they think. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, Amanda, who was in my workshop with me. She gave me probably the best tough love conversation I’ve had in my life. She said, “Helene, can I ask you a question? Why are you writing like this?” I said “What do you mean, writing like what?” She said, “Ok, you’re doing these very Raymond Carver, very realist short stories. Very MFA model. But that’s not who you are. I’ve been to your apartment. I’ve seen your bookshelves. I know what a nerd you are. And you are always talking in class about injecting the genre into literature, and busting down the barriers and bringing magic into stories and that’s what you groove on. So why are you not doing that?” I honestly had never thought of that. She had taken my head and whipped it around to where I needed to be looking at. You know I’m still like “But that’s not…these stories…don’t…with the,…that, no.“ She said “ok, look. The next thing I see from you in the workshop, I want it to be about your family, but I want it to be magical.” I was like, “Ok…well that’s my marching orders. I’m going to do what she said. I went home and sat and thought about it. It was, literally, two hours later I had the rough outline for what would be The Golem and the Jinni.” – from the Lady Grey interview

It has been eight years since The Golem and the Jinni was published. Why did it take so long to wrote Volume Two? When her first novel was published, Wecker had a one-year-old. That child is now nine and a second has joined the family. Go ahead, try writing a novel with a baby, then giving birth to another, then having small children to take care of, even if you are sharing the duties with your mate. Piece of cake, right? Her editor was pretty understanding, at one point even telling her that if she was not ok with what she had written so far, to take another YEAR! So, supportive beyond belief.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again. Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning. – from the Fantasy Café interview

I guess that may have provided the needed direction, but her real -world constraints remained, and the work took much longer than hoped. I have seen no affirmation that a third Golem/Jinni book is planned. A third book is expected from Wecker, but there is no certainty that it will be another Golem/Jinni novel. In the interview with Lady Grey, Wecker talks about having a slew of material that was cut from this book. It sounded to me like she was contemplating a volume of stories that could accompany her two novels. But the ending of this one presents several hooks that could be developed into a third novel. I know which direction I hope she takes.

My gripes are minimal. While there is some humor in the book, it could have done with a bit more. The larger concern is that, even with some elements resolved, there are some in need of further exploration, and, in the absence of a third novel in the series, the ending leaves one hanging. While I would place a cautious wager on the series being made into a true trilogy, it is far from a certainty that this will happen, so far as I know.

Her lead characters are complex, and sustain our interest; their wants and challenges are clear; the secondary characters work well to support the narrative stream; Wecker offers an insightful portrait of a place and time; the action keeps us flipping the pages, eager to see what happens next; there are intelligent and emotional discussions about real-world concerns and moral issues; and there are sane outcomes offered to the challenges the characters experience. Ultimately, as will become clear when you read this book, it was worth the extra time it took for The Hidden Palace to find the light of day. It is as intelligent, engaging, and delightful a read as you could possibly wish for. Helene Wecker is a gifted weaver of tales, a fabulous, magical story-teller, and she is only getting better.

Review posted – May 28, 2021

Publication date – June 8, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR, Instagram, and FB pages

—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of THE HIDDEN PALACE – with Chris Connolly – audio – 36:21
—–Fantasy Literature – Marion chats with Helene Wecker by Marion Deeds – this one is from 2013, and deals directly with the first Golem/Jinni book, but the content of the interview is still very informative for readers of the current book
—–LitLovers – An Interview with Helene Wecker
—–Discovering Magic with Helene Wecker – audio – 42:19 – with Lady Grey – they were friends since grade school – Trek nerds

Items of Interest from the author
—–Fantasy Café – Women in SF&F Month: Helene Wecker – on her challenges in writing The Hidden Palace
—–Jewish Book Council – Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Odessa pogrom of 1905
—–Wiki on Palmyra
—–The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
—–The Hotel Earle
—–Penn Station

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City

The Center of Everything by Jamie Harrison

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Good mothers were rarities, the center of everything.

Sometimes the beauty of the written word can make you stop, pause, sigh deeply, and appreciate the moment. I am fortunate to have been able to read and report on many top tier works of fiction. It remains a singular joy to come across written passages that bring me near to tears with their sheer power and beauty. Here is the beginning of the novel, the beginning of what brought on my overwrought response:

When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month, or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great-aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them. Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke. Her father, Merle, told her that her mind was like a forest, and the trees inside were her people, each leaf or needle a memory. Her mother, Jane, said that memories were the way a person tried to turn a life into a story, and Papa, Polly’s great-grandfather, said that there was a story about everything. He would tell them something long and strange to explain the existence of tigers or caves or trees, but then he’d say, Well, the Greeks said the same thing, or the Finns; the Athabascans, the Etruscans, the Utes, Days were an Aztec snake swallowing its tail, water came from a Celtic goddess’s eyes, thunder was a deadly fart from a Bantu in the sky.

See what I mean? The issues noted in the passage presage the stories and memory issues to come. The way a child thinks? Check. People looking different from one time to another? Check. Needing time to recognize faces beneath disguises? Check. People disappearing? Sadly, check. Memory as a way of turning lived experience into story? Check. Cultures, and people coming up with tales to explain observed events? Check.

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Jamie Harrison – image from her site

We meet Polly Schuster (nee Berrigan) as an adult, 42, having recently suffered a serious injury, hit by a car while bike-riding. She has a considerable scar on her skull from the needed repairs. The damage to her brain has left her something other than what she had been up until then. She has become forgetful, can drift off sometimes while with other people, but mostly she now has issues with memory. With her great-aunt Maude coming to town to celebrate her 90th birthday, there is a flurry of preparations (stories told, photographs and artifacts of earlier times unearthed) that summon memories for Polly. But can she rely on those recollections? What we have here is an unwillingly unreliable narrator.

The novel is told in (mostly) two times, the present (2002) in Montana, and 1968, when Polly was eight years old and her family lived on Long Island, with dramatic events in 1968 leading up to what she calls “The End of the World” and “The Beginning of the World,” in that order. The 2002 world is ordered by Maude’s arrival, but also by an alarming event.

Water here is less the usual symbol of rebirth than of death. Two boating incidents a lifetime apart. Were they accidents, or something else? This being Montana, a river runs through the story. Ariel, a young woman the Schusters had hired as a sitter for their two children, has gone missing, kayaking on the Yellowstone River too early in the season, (The Yellowstone runs rough this time of year. Someone dying on the river was not unusual. It was easier when it was a tourist, but far too often it was a local, like Ariel.) she has vanished. Her riverine companion, Graham, a person of questionable character and veracity, survived. He is widely suspected of having a hand in Ariel’s fate, whatever that turns out to be. Was she the victim of simple misfortune, or something worse? Where is she? What about the man Polly had found dead on the beach back in 1968? What was the deal with that? There are other incidents involving water, including a woman who drowns, trapped underwater after an accident, a plane crashing into a lake, another body found on a beach, and a woman attempts suicide by walking into the sea.

Polly’s great-grandmother Dee told her once that there were three kinds of dreams—not the passing filaments, the sorted trash from the day, but the ones that came back, over and over—about three kinds of things: wishes or desires, loss or being lost, and fear. All her life, Polly thought these categories felt true, and lately, they came to her in combination.

What are memories, but the distilled media and emotional resonance of events we have experienced? Yet, our abilities as children to understand what those events are, or mean is far from complete, our ability to form coherent, accurate recollections remains incomplete. Thus, magical thinking. Three-year-old Polly believed that when people died they went somewhere else, disguised. So, when Jane and Merle moved to NYC she thought they were looking for her late grandfather and aunt. Four-year-old Helen, Polly’s daughter in 2002, looks under rocks for the missing Ariel, fearing she may have melted. Seven and eight-year-old Polly tries to make some sense of the bodies found on Long Island beaches in successive summers. Then tries to remember, from adulthood, with a damaged brain, what it was that had actually happened.

There are plenty of identifiable links to the author’s life. Here are a few. Living in Montana is the most obvious. But other residences noted in the novel reflect Harrison’s experience as well. Her parents lived in Long Island when she was small, as did Polly’s. Both Harrison and her husband, and Polly and Ned moved from New York to Montana. When Harrison moved, she and her husband lived with well-known painter and writer, Russell Chatham, thus, perhaps a bit of inspiration for the painter character, Rita. Although, I expect her exposure to Chatham was a lot less dramatic than Polly’s is to Rita. Born in the same year as Polly, Harrison grew up in an accomplished, artistic family. Her father, Jim Harrison, was the author of Legends of the Fall, among other works. A-list writers were part of her growing up experience. Papa reflects this, renowned for his study of story and culture, a Joseph Campbell sort. Livingston, MT, where Harrison lives, is, notoriously, home, at least part-time, to a host of Hollywood A-listers. Notorious because the wealthy Californians did an excellent job of bidding up the price of local land and housing, to the point that many locals who might want to stick around have been priced out. The western invaders are represented, at least somewhat, by Drake Aasgard, an actor of note, who employs Polly to screen scripts for him.

Those good mothers, noted in the quote at the top, and the title of the book, are far from ubiquitous, and so, are special when they turn up. But it seemed to me that the title could, as easily, be referring to family, or even memory, as the center of everything. My only gripe about the book is that the mysteries seemed at times to drift maybe a bit too far back from the amazing description of the concrete lives of the central characters. Tap, tap, tap. This is all very interesting, but I want to know what happened to…

There are mysteries to be solved, sans PI. Polly drifts out of reality at times, struggling to discern what is, or was real. The story is told both from adult Polly’s perspective and from her as a child. This is pulled off quite well, believable in both cases.

Polly continues to struggle throughout. Some mysteries are resolved. Some questions remain, but the greatest strength of the novel, in addition to her celestial command of language, is Harrison’s vivid, detailed portrayal of an extended family, a community of the related and connected. Polly may be the lead, but this is an ensemble cast, with many interesting characters, who gain our attention in different ways. The rich detail Harrison offers gives very real texture to the characters’ lives. Both time settings are given close looks and we can see what the characters see, feel what they feel. There are characters aplenty striding through, many of whom would merit their own full-length tales. Papa and Dee’s household in the 60s was warm, raucous, and exciting. These people will certainly grab and hold your interest. There is magic aplenty in this book, and not in a fantasy way, although Polly does have some experiences that could easily have gone there.

The Center of Everything is a triumph, evocative writing, wonderful characters, smart consideration of how story functions in the world, as well as in literature, a 3D-immersive portrayal of a family, and a few mysteries as well. This novel should be at the center of your reading plans this winter, if you can remember.

Childhood is a green knot, hiding places and suspended time. It is the speed she can run through grass, the heat of the air, the fear of pissing her pants on the school bus, the difficulty of returning someone’s gaze, a bright object in the sand, the way a good moment can slide to bad.

Review posted – January 29, 2021

Publication date – January 12, 2021

I received a copy of this book from Counterpoint in exchange for an honest review. At least I think that was the deal. I can’t quite seem to recall.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR and FB pages

Interviews
—–Lithub – Jamie Harrison on Finding Her Way to the Writer’s Life in the American West by Thomas McGuane (an old family friend)
—–David Abrams Books – My First Time: Jamie Harrison – for The Widow Nash, but some materials here are relevant

Items of Interest
—–Lapham’s Quarterly – Once Upon Time – the four oldest Fairy Tales
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An image of it – Jamie says, in a facebook posting of this, “This is fun; I played around with these shifts in my new book.” One of the characters studies how stories change over eons, culture to culture.
—–Wiki on Jim Harrison, Jaime’s father, renowned poet, and author of Legends of the Fall – he was a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island in 1965-66

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A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

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Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. – the opening of The Iliad by Homer

I’m not sure I could have made it more obvious, but he hasn’t understood at all. I’m not offering him the story of one woman during the Trojan War, I’m offering him the story of all the women in the war. Well, most of them (I haven’t decided about Helen yet. She gets on my nerves.). I’m giving him the chance to see the war from both ends: how it was caused and how its consequences played out. Epic in scale and subject matter.

Calliope, Homer’s presumed muse, keeps trying to get him to tell the broader tale, not just the one about the men and their battles and intrigues. But he insists on a singular, male-oriented view of the Troy story (Ilios is Greek for Troy). That is the only one we have gotten, well, from him, anyway. Other classical writers have offered some different perspectives, Euripedes in particular.

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Natalie Haynes – Image from her site – photo credit: Dan Mersh

We have all read it, (you did do the assigned reading in school right?) or certainly at least heard about it. The Iliad, by Homer, is the most widely read epic poem ever. The action centers on the leaders and the combatants, with a healthy dose of less-than-divine gods and goddesses, and adventure aplenty. It is rather light, though, on the stories about the impact of this lengthy war on women. Whudduwe? Chopped livah?

So, Natalie Haynes offers a retelling of the story of Troy from the perspective of its female characters, the story she imagines Calliope might have been pressing on her reluctant client. And the Odyssey as well, as we trail Odysseus through some of his dodgy travails.

The drama of war is not always found on the battlefield. It’s in the build-up, the aftermath, the margins. Where the women are waiting. – Haynes – from The Observer article

Beware Greeks bearing gifts.

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Trojan Horse – image from ThoughtCo.com

Just like today, the lives of regular people in Greek mythology are made miserable by the feckless, selfish, ignorant actions of the people in charge. And those on high are not shy about using others, other gods, lower-level gods, demi-gods, and mere mortals to implement their dark desires. For example, Gaia, mother of Titans (take that, Daenerys) is maybe a bit more like Joan Crawford (Earth-Mommy dearest?) in this telling, or a very unhappy landlady. (banging on the ceiling with a broom handle?)

Mankind was just so impossibly heavy. There were so many of them and they showed no sign of halting their endless reproduction. Stop, she wanted to cry out, please stop. You cannot all fit on the space between the oceans…you must stop, so that I can rest beneath your ever-increasing weight.

Zeusy, Sweetie, can you help me out here? And what better way to take off a bit of excess earthly poundage than a lengthy and particularly bloody war. Sure, Gai, no prob. And thus, with the eager assistance of a cast of the greedy, prideful, bloodthirsty, short-sighted, dumb, and just plain foolish, we get a decade-long war, short on forward movement but long on casualties, and stories.

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Cassandra in front of the burning city of Troy – by Evelyn De Morgan – from Wikimedia

We follow a cast of mostly female characters as they endure or succumb to the horrors of war, politics and religion. Hecabe, Priam’s widow is a central core among the captive wives and daughters of the defeated Trojans, holding the group together as they ponder and plan for their fates in the hands of their captors. They cope with their treatment by the Greek victors. Some names will be familiar. Others, less so. You have probably heard of Cassandra. And certainly you know of Hector, but not his widow Andromache. They face moral choices no less than their y-chromosome counterparts. When and how to resist, when and how to go along. Finding ways to seek justice, revenge, or freedom. Banding together. Even the hated Helen is given a turn. Their lives, and deaths are no less heroic, despite a lower body count.

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Penthesilea – image from Total War Saga: Troy

Non-Trojan women get a perspective as well. You may have heard of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, but maybe not of Penthesilea, an amazing Amazonian character, Xena, or Wonder Woman, sans the tech. Leading her force into battle, looking to take on Achilles himself. You go, girl. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, gets some recognition for the atrocities she has endured, not just the one for which she has received a dark reputation.

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Penelope – image from The Arts Desk – painting by John William Waterhouse

Penelope tells Odysseus’s story via letters, having heard of his doings from local bards, who clearly get great reception on their muse-links. So, Ody, the war’s over, dinner is getting cold, your son would like to meet you, what time do you think you’ll be home? There are several Penelope chapters, written as letters to her MIA hubs. Pretty funny stuff, looking at the adventures of Odysseus from the perspective of the ones left behind. Oh, so after you poked out the Polyphemus’s one eye and were sailing off into the distance, you felt it necessary to tell him your real name? Just what the hell is wrong with you? You knew that Poseidon was his father, right? Hope you enjoy that curse he dumped on you. Well, no wonder you got blown off course. How old are you?…Really, you took a side trip to Hades? What were you thinking? Shacked up with Circe for a year and that Orygian home-wrecker Calypso for seven FU@#ING YEARS!!! My patience is running a wee bit thin, husband. Her exasperation really comes through.

You were wedded to fame more than you were ever wedded to me. And certainly, your relationship with your own glory has been unceasing.

The men do not come off well, overall, Achilles is not just the greatest warrior who ever lived, but a feckless murder machine who sees no difference between taking on Trojan warriors on the battlefield and mowing down unarmed old men, women, and children from his horse. His bf, Patroclus, thinks a high body count is all that matters, regardless of type. Agamemnon, nominal leader of the Greek coalition army, is venal, pathetic, entitled and cowardly. Can he be impeached? Really, you are willing to slaughter one of your kids to get a fair wind for your ships just because some priest tells you so? Really? Dude, you deserve what you get.

What kind of man wore a bronze breastplate and a plumed helmet to return home? One who believed that his power was seated in his costume, she supposed. The red leather of his scabbard was very fine, studded with gold flecks. She did not recognize it, and realized this must be part of his share of the fabled wealth of Troy. To have killed her child for a decorated bit of animal skin. She could feel the contempt shaping her mouth into a sneer, and stopped herself. Now was not the time to lose control. That would happen later.

The gods are portrayed as their usual awful selves, which is no surprise. Power corrupts, and, apparently, makes you really stupid, too. While most of the women come to a bad end. This is not a spoiler, because you read the book, right? But some get in a few licks of their own, and a few even escape.

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Detail of painting The Muses Urania and Calliope by Simon Vouet, in which she holds a copy of the Odyssey – image from Wikimedia

There are many lessons from The Iliad that still pertain thousands of years after its writing. Antenor telling those in charge that the Trojan horse might, just possibly, be a ploy, and Cassandra cursed with knowing what lies ahead but never being acknowledged might, just possibly, remind some of the Trump administration’s response to the Covid crisis. And a Trojan willing to open the gates for an invading horde might certainly resonate with corrupt American legislators offering tours and even directions to a Capitol-invading mob in 2021. The classics are classic for a reason

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Clytemnestra and Agamemnon – Pierre-Narcisse Guerin (1774-1833) – Image from Greek Legends and Myths

To see or hear Haynes speak is to be instantly charmed, and better, educated and entertained. She is a gifted lecturer, bringing to her talks all the effervescence, delight, and enthusiasm she clearly brings to her fiction. She is an amazing writer, bringing the ancients to life for us in the 21st century. And her decade-plus career as a stand-up comedian clearly informs her work. While not LOL-funny here, her portrayal of Penelope’s remarkable forbearance certainly has a sharp comedic edge. Overall, Haynes has given voice to a side of the Trojan War that has been much overlooked. A Thousand Ships deserves to get millions of readers. It’s smart, entertaining take on a classic story is a new classic, all its own.

A war does not ignore the lives of half the people it touches. So why do we?

Review posted – January 22, 2021

Publication dates
———- May 2nd 2019 by Mantle (UK)
———–January 26, 2021 – Harper (USA)

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and Instagram pages

Interviews
—–NPR – The Trojan Women — And Many More — Speak Up In ‘A Thousand Ships’ by Lulu Garcia-Navarro
—–Books on the Go – Ep 78: Interview with Natalie Haynes, ‘A Thousand Ships’ – with Anna Bailliekaras – audio – 36:43
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand up comedians who talk about why they got out
—–Salon London – In conversation with ‘the Nation’s Great Muse’: Natalie Haynes – video – 1:04:13
—–Harrogate Literature Festival – mostly on Pandora’s Jar rather than A Thousand Ships, but wonderfully entertaining, and some outstanding and surprising information about Helen
—–The Guardian – Standups on why they quit comedy: ‘I have nightmares about having to do it again’ by Brian Logan – Haynes is one of several stand-up comedians who talk about why they got out

Items of Interest – by the author
—–Natalie Haynes: Troy Story – A. G. Leventis WCN Ancient Worlds Study Day 2019
You must watch this. You will not be sorry
—–Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics – BBC Radio 4 – A lecture series by Haynes – audio
—–The Observer – Helen of Troy: the Greek epics are not just about war – they’re about women
—–Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors
—–Troy Story – Heroes Gods and Amazons!

Items of Interest
—– Where Does the Phrase “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” Come From? By N.S. Gill
—–wiki on Calliope
—–wiki on Clytemnestra
—–Homer (no, wiseguy, not the one from The Simpsons) – The Iliad – full-text from Gutenberg

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