“But this is a women’s war, just as much as it is the men’s, and the poet will look upon their pain – the pain of the women who have always been relegated to the edges of the story, victims of men, survivors of men, slaves of men – and he will tell it, or he will tell nothing at all.”
There are good retellings of Greek myths and legends – The Song of Achilles, for example. There are good feminist retellings – Circe and The Penelopiad. And there are (I’m sorry to say it) not so good feminist retellings, such as The Silence of the Girls. With A Thousand Ships, we thankfully have a feminist retelling which falls into good – if not excellent- category.
The book follows a mostly chronological story of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ (and other ‘heroes’) various meanderings afterwards, told solely through the eyes of the women involved. Some are well known to fans of the immensely popular recent novels, others were new to me.
A Thousand Ships flits between many of the women involved in and affected by the war, and I have read several views that suggest the book was the worse because of this. I found the opposite- perhaps it’s down to my lack of focus at the moment but I loved gaining a wider perspective through multiple viewpoints.
I gave this book 9/10. Will it win the Women’s Prize? Probably not. It may not be as in-depth and focused as some people would prefer, but it was the perfect read for me at this time. If you want to escape into the world of Greek myths and legends, this is the book for you. And on that note, if you have any other recommendations for myths and legends retellings, pop them in the comments!
Blood appears black in the moonlight. Don’t ask me how I know that. There are many things I’ve done and many things I’ve seen that I’d prefer not to tell you. But I suppose, now I’m here, that I should share.
It is freeing, in a way, to be able to tell you anything. To feel like I can tell you anything. I trust you. I haven’t trusted many people in my life, but you – I feel like we have a connection. Don’t you?
So, where to begin? I suppose you want to know everything, don’t you? Perhaps I should start with my childhood. How little there is to tell about that though. I was a loner – I imagine you guessed that already, from how I am now. An only child, distant parents. I can’t pretend that my difficulties, the trials and tribulations I’ve felt during my life, haven’t stemmed from then. In fact, until I found you, I was drifting. I had no anchor, despite my wealth. Oh, how I do now!
No, don’t worry, my parents weren’t cruel. But I can’t say that they showed me love either. They were busy, I felt like an afterthought. I found my own ways to entertain myself. I won’t bore you with them, ordinary childhood things that they were. Games.
I went to University a year early. I always was bright, but numbers come naturally to me. I was confused by how others struggled in those lessons, perhaps that goes some way to explain my lack of friends. I hoped things would be different at Oxford University. Surely there, there would be people like me?
As you know, I was disappointed. They had all of the benefits of a socialised childhood and they gathered in groups that I couldn’t infiltrate. I just didn’t know how – they weren’t like me. Instead, I went from lecture to lecture, head down, books in hand, talking to no one. I was invisible. I kept my eyes on the ground and studied in my room. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me and that was that.
This may sound like I want your pity. I don’t. You know that since then, my life has become an apparent success. I have friends, fans even. My money. Status. But I’ve always wanted more. I’ve always been hungry for more. Now that we’re together, I’m content. You have changed that side of me, at least.
Yes, I know why we are here, having this conversation. Yes, I can tell what that expression on your face means. You want more. Well. I don’t know whether delving any deeper would be helpful. You already seem disappointed in me. What can I do? It is more difficult than it seems, peeling back the layers. As painful as removing a layer of skin. I’ll try. I’m flattered that you want to learn more about me. I feel there is something I’m missing though, something urgent that you want. You are tense. But you feel as though you can’t ask. Ok, that’s fine. I want you to believe in me.
A heart is like an apple, you know. When it’s healthy and happy it is fresh and juicy and red – filled to bursting. Have you ever bitten into an apple and left it on the side? Straight away it starts to wilt, brown, rot. There’s no healing it. That’s my experience, anyway. Give it an hour or two and there’s nothing you can do to save it, you may as well just toss it in the bin.
You could say that’s been my life’s work.
You don’t get the connection? You look confused, but trust me, it is a good metaphor. I can see your micro expressions now, flitting across your face, you are struggling to understand. It will become clear. I want what you want – I want the two of us to be happy and I want you to know me. I know that’s important for us to move forward.
Shall we move on to your reservations about me? I can see that you have them. People have had reservations about since I was a child. Perhaps it’s something about the way I hold myself. I’m so used to being alone that others sense that they are unnecessary around me, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I need you as much as you need me. I’m sorry that I can’t be different.
Perhaps talking about my career will help. You know that I’m successful and – well, you’ve seen my office. You perhaps don’t know quite how hard I had to work to build my company. From the ground up. Starting with nothing – no loans, just a computer in my bedroom. Am I proud of what I’ve achieved? Yes, of course I am. Wouldn’t you be? I’m sorry, I don’t mean to undermine your own career. I know you work hard. But yes, to get to the bottom of what you want to know, I did trample on people on my way up. To be a success, you have to. Kind people don’t get anywhere in this life. Oh, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but you understand – to make millions, to become a someone, you have to stand on top of a pile of bodies. Excuse my crude phrasing. It was harder for me than those Eton boys with their connections readymade. I had to rely on pure talent and guts. You think I’m cold, and I don’t deny it. But you can see why I would be, with a life like mine.
Now I’m confused because you still seem to want more from me. There are no more relevant things that I can share about my life. I said it was freeing to be able to tell you anything and I stand by that, but your reaction is frankly quite disappointing. You have a strange look on your face. What is that look? If you came closer to me, maybe I would be able to decipher it. As it is, I am drawn to your glinting eyes in this gloomy room.
I see what you want. I understand now. You want to know about my past relationships. Are you alright? I noticed a subtle change in you. This is what you were waiting for. Well, I’m afraid there’s really nothing to tell you. I have never been much of a one for long relationships. They don’t tend to work for me.
I know that’s not the answer you wanted to hear.
Interview adjourned at 13.49. The accused remains unwilling to disclose the locations of the other bodies.
Bright, light books should grace everyone’s shelves. These are six of my particular favourites. The Wuthering Heights and Pride & Prejudice are part of the glorious Thomas Nelson Seasons Paper Cut series. These fall under winter – the summer set is available for preorder now. They are some of the most gorgeously intricate designs I’ve ever seen. Also included are my incredibly special Anna Karenina and the Knickerbocker Jules Verne collection.
Here’s where you can find them (starting from the bottom):
The rain started in February. I remember well because it was my birthday. We had enjoyed a week of those crisp, bright days with beaming clean sunshine and, with the forecast claiming it was set to continue, I arranged a walk up a mountain with my friends to celebrate. I anticipated snow at the top, but how could anyone have guessed what would really happen?
The day started gloriously, with those snaking rays of dancing light illuminating frost. The ground crunched underfoot- it was cold, oh yes it was cold. The sky was a haze, cushioning its glowing orb. Not a breath of wind. The perfect day for walking.
We set off early in a caravan of cars, parked up and readied ourselves for our stroll. We joked about the smell of egg and cress sandwiches and Maisie discovered that her flask was leaking. After the shortest of delays, we began. My remaining memories of that first part of the walk are the sun glittering on water dripping from the trees, a dog barking, my friends laughing. It was when we got through the initial woods and high enough to see the horizon that our light mood gradually began to change.
The packed ice and snow was clearly visible, despite the distance we still had to go, but that was not the issue. No, what made us on edge was the heavy black cloud coming in from the west. It was many miles away, but something about its density weighed on our minds. We made some jokes, zipped up our coats and carried on, but the cloud was there. I looked at it so often that I could not have said whether it was getting closer or further away, until we had reached the point of no return and the cloud was upon us.
Snow was under our feet now, no one was around and the cloud above blocked out the sun so abruptly it was as though someone had switched off the lights. We all stopped and looked up. There were eight of us, at that point. Of course I am used to it now, but back then I had never seen a cloud like it before. It was – there is no other word for it – evil. We just didn’t know what to do, and there wasn’t enough time to make a decision.
When it began, we stopped being a group and started being individuals. Survival was the only thing that mattered. The thunder was first, the mountain actually shook. I crouched, hands over my head. It was instinct – I didn’t know what I expected. I stayed like that when the thunder ceased and the rain came. Torrential is too weak a word. I was drowning, gasping, clinging to the ground in despair as a newly formed river churned around me.
I had to move, I half-walked half-swam to the left, towards a shadow I hoped was a clump of bushes or rocks. I could barely see, the rain poured into my eyes, mixed with my tears. How I made it, I don’t know, but I was there, hunched behind rocks, protected a little from the deluge.
Gradually, after who knows how long, the rain eased – it didn’t stop, not even close, but the air cleared slightly and I could breathe. Looking around, I could see no one. I shouted to no avail, finally decided that they had descended the mountain without me. With that in mind, and with the rain lighter, I decided to climb down myself.
It was a journey I would rather forget. I have never been more fearful. Had, I should say. I cried when I got back to the car park. What happened next shames me, but I wonder if you would have done the same. You see, my friends’ cars were still there, beginning to flood. I ignored them. Blind to them, as the rain got heavier and I imagined roads blocked with rushing water, I got in my car and backed away.
The crash is how I got here. The rain was so violent that my wipers did nothing, but in my desperation I kept going, unseeingly, down the country roads. It didn’t last long. I blacked out in the crash, woke up in a comfortable bed with two concerned faces peering down at me. I was in a wooden room; it was dark and had a pleasurable musky smell.
‘He’s awake!’ A hand was on my forehead. I looked closely at the two faces. A man and a woman of indeterminate age, both wearing bright raincoats – his red, hers yellow. Their faces were weather worn and friendly.
‘Where am I?’ I raised myself onto my elbows to look around more easily.
They exchanged a glance. I noticed that I was swaying, lay back down and put a hand to my head.
‘You were in a crash. With us.’ The woman said quickly. She glanced at the man. ‘Do you remember the rain?’
I nodded. How could one forget?
‘We were travelling…the thing is…’ the woman trailed off. The man shrugged.
‘What is it? Where am I?’ I was alert now.
The man sighed. ‘Can you stand?’ He offered a hand. I took it, stood, stumbled and noticed a throbbing pain in my head. The man took my arm and led me out of the low-ceilinged, wood-walled room. Through a narrow door and down a dark hallway with many doors to each side and strange noises coming from the rooms behind them. I shivered, swayed again.
At the final door at the end of the corridor, the man stopped and turned to me. His face was serious. ‘Are you ready?’ He asked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he grimly eased the door open outwards against howling wind and battering rain. It hadn’t, stopped then. He took hold of a chain from the wall and motioned that I should do the same, then followed the chain outside, hand after hand. Curiosity piqued, I followed him. The storm was just as violent as before and although I struggled to see, it was obvious. We were at sea. We were on an enormous wooden boat on a tempestuous body of water. Why had they brought me here? I turned and fled indoors, the man close on my tail. He shut the door behind him.
‘What are you doing with me?’ I took the man’s shoulders and shook him. He looked afraid. As he should. I was taller, stronger and he couldn’t hurt me.
‘Please, come and sit.’ The woman spoke from behind me. I turned and she gestured to a room to my left which hosted a table and chairs. Seeing no other option, I followed her into the room and sat in one of the rickety chairs.
‘My name is Niamh. This is Neil.’ Neil smiled and held out his hand for me to shake. I ignored it.
‘Tell me why I’m here.’
Neil sighed. ‘We saved you. Just remember that.’ He exchanged a glance with Niamh before he carried on. ‘When we crashed, we were on our way to safety. We had this boat, you see. We own a small petting zoo, and we had to shelter the animals from the rain, so we put them on the boat and we were driving to somewhere safer. In the crash, both of our cars were ruined and you were unconscious. We decided we would get you onto the boat, out of the rain for a while. You were unconscious for a long time…’
‘More than a day!’ Niamh interjected.
‘…and in that time, the boat broke free from the trailer. We didn’t know what was happening at first, it’s so hard to see out there, but eventually we realised. The flooding was so severe that we had begun to float. And you see, the rain hasn’t stopped. We’re still floating. The thing is…’ another of those irritating glances between them.
‘The thing is what?’ I snapped.
‘We haven’t seen dry land since. We’ve floated for miles and…’
I broke him off with a harsh laugh. ‘Are you seriously trying to trick me into thinking that you rescued me from some biblical flood? Do you really expect me to believe that? Listen, I don’t know why you’ve brought me here but you need to dock this boat and let me off, now.’
Neil sighed and shrugged. ‘Listen, we saved you. You don’t have to thank us, but we did. You’re welcome to share our food for as long as it lasts. But we can’t dock this boat. Radios are down, internet, everything. Niamh and I think…we don’t think there are any docks left.’
I was fed up with talking to them, sick of the lies. I didn’t answer, instead strode back to the room I had woken up in. I stayed there for many days. Niamh and Neil did not bother me, but they left me food and water outside the door each morning. It was bland food – porridge and water, and some fruit to start with though this dwindled to nothing. I was in a rage, and the longer we remained at sea the more my rage grew. Where were they taking me? America? And why?
There was a small, circular window high up in my room. I spent hours, days, staring through it at the relentless rain, impossible to separate from the splashes from waves. I ate my pitiful porridge when I was starving and dreamed of fat steaks and juicy chicken.
Oh, I can’t describe the hunger. I pray that you are never in this position. But until, and unless, you are, you cannot judge. What would a person do for survival? What would you do?
The sound of the animals taunted me. I held out for weeks. Four or five or six, who knows. But the hunger got to me in the end. No more tasteless porridge. I stepped out of my room for the first time in so many days and peered around. No sign of Niamh and Neil. I crept down the corridor and tried each door. The first one to open contained chickens. Ah, chickens! I was beside myself. The hunger, you see. When Niamh and Neil arrived, presumably drawn by the squawking of the birds, I expect it did look bad – a blood bath perhaps. But the hunger! You wouldn’t understand it with your privilege.
They stood aghast in the doorway. The chickens were all dead at this point. Their faces were ashen, Niamh even began crying, cradling one of the birds.
‘What have you done?’ Neil asked, the words dropping like stones. He leaned against the doorway, propping himself up. ‘Forty days, we’ve been sailing, and now…now the chickens too…’
‘Too?’ I asked, wiping blood from my lips. Neil frowned at me, as though trying to work something out. My captors looked disgusted.
‘We would prefer it if you went back to your room.’ Niamh said, wiping away her tears.
‘Fine.’ I sighed, and stood. ‘But they’re only chickens. What do you expect me to do? You can’t let me starve.’
‘You said that last time.’ Neil said, that frown still on his face. He must be going quite mad. I let him escort me back to my room, expected to hear a key turn in a lock, but it didn’t happen.
You don’t understand how difficult it is to be aboard a boat with two maniacs. They kidnapped me and took me to sea against my will. We all have a survival instinct. We are animals, deep down. And when you are in a position like this, perhaps you will act the same. But then – and only then – will you be able to judge me.
Later that day, I was staring out of my window when I got quite a shock. Blue! A glimpse of blue, rather than endless grey! I ran from my room, down the corridor and onto the deck. It was true! The rain had stopped! A glimmer of sunshine through the gap in the clouds bathed my face and I shouted in joy. There, what was that? A bird! A dove, carrying a branch. The first time I had seen a bird since this all started. And there – in the distance- was that land? I shouted again, got no response. Of course I didn’t. You have to understand, they were my captors and they had starved me. And that was why I slit their throats.
These four black books contain some of my favourite works. The one novel – Dracula – is close to the top of my list of classics I enjoy the most. It is always a delight to read (and the recent BBC adaptation was a delight to watch – amazing for binging!). The other three books contain short stories and novellas from some of the very best authors. The Flame Tree short stories in particular are fantastic value for money.
I don’t think I actually need to say a word. These books are glorious. Barnes and Noble leatherbound books are the epitome of beauty for me. These special editions look gorgeous on my bookshelf, are a pleasure to read and would make amazing gifts. In fact, I regularly give friends and family these editions as presents. They always go down well!
Everything about clothbound classics is pleasing to the eye, and these purple ones are no exception. I love all of these books, but Madame Bovary is a particular favourite. I’m due a reread soon! Otherwise, the magic of the language in Jabberwocky is something else, and Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the cleverest retellings I’ve come across.
“Somehow it went from too soon to too late, without the right moment in between.”
If you had the power to erase your worst memories, would you? The Binding explores this question and the moral and ethical dilemmas involved, and it does so beautifully.
There is a wonderful depth to Collins’ writing as she unwinds her themes. If it were possible to remove memories, would it be done for good, or for ill? All the while, a tragic love story unfolds between Emmett Farmer and Lucian Darnay, one a poor apprentice, the other rich and privileged. The love story was gorgeously written, and added another level to this already intriguing idea.
The books in Collins’ story are dangerous – they contain human memories, just as our own books do, but these are memories that the owner wanted to be hidden, secreted away from the originator themselves.
The Binding is set in a time which has many similarities with 19th century England, and this dark, gloomy setting works perfectly for the story.
I truly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it.
It has been a year for reading, with many of us spending a lot more time at home than we had perhaps envisioned in January. Fortunately, there have been some incredible new releases this year. Here are the books I’ve read and the books I’m most looking forward to this year…
1. My Dark Vanessa
You may be familiar with My Dark Vanessa, a tale about a college student and her relationship with her professor. It is an interesting investigation into the manipulation and balance of power involved.
Although technically released in 2019, this features on my list because it is the next book I’m going to read (just waiting for it to arrive!) and it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year. Feminist retelling of myths are usually a winner, so I can’t wait to start this one.
This book has been EVERYWHERE this year, and with good reason. It is based on the 1621 witch trials in Finland so of course I like it (my own book is based on the 1612 witch trials in Pendle), and this is beautifully crafted.
I don’t know about you, but there’s something about these editions that just sings to me. Flame Tree Publishing have created a range of short stories collections, and they are not only fascinating but also highly aesthetically pleasing.
I have these three so far, but I hope to expand my collection soon!