Martha Lane Fox, chair of the judging panel, said: “We are all living in challenging, sad and complex times so incredible stories provide hope, a moment of escape and a point of connection now more than ever. Choosing the shortlist was tough – we went slowly and carefully and passions ran high – just as you would want in such a process. But we are all so proud of these books – all readers will find solace if they pick one up.”
Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, tells of war and warriors, yet it is also a story full of women — from the Trojan women, captured and abused as spoils of war; to Penelope, wife of the Greek hero Odysseus, patiently awaiting her husband’s long-delayed return; and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.
Haynes brings these marginal figures to the foreground, giving them voices to tell their stories with resilience and wit. ‘A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches,’ Calliope concludes, ‘so why do we?’
There are plenty of women in this book whose narratives come through to us in the epic tradition only as tantalising fragments, and Haynes ranges well beyond the Iliad and the Odyssey to flesh them out. Take Andromache, widow of the Trojan prince Hector. She is handed over to Achilles’s son Neoptolemus after Troy falls; he has brutally killed her infant boy by throwing him from the battlements. Homer has little to say about her, and Haynes has to go to Euripides for the complex human conclusion to what begins as a tale of sensational tragedy... Calliope insists that Penelope’s fortitude in waiting 20 years for her husband “also takes a hero’s disposition” – and the fact that Homer’s Achilles chooses an early death rather than the drawn-out sentence of an obscure old age suggests that she has a point. “I have picked up the old stories and I have shaken them until the hidden women appear in plain sight,” concludes the wily muse. This subversive reseeing of the classics is a many-layered delight.
Haynes’s central premise is that heroism is vested as much in women as in men... It’s a multi-faceted question, and myriad female voices are brought to bear in the attempt to answer it. There is a neat structure. Haynes posits a peeved Calliope receiving invocations from, we assume, Homer... There are two problems with Haynes’s approach. The first is that the claim her book gives voice to the women of epic for the first time is disingenuous... The second is that the multiplicity of viewpoints means that quite often we get straightforward retellings of very well-known myths, such as the Judgment of Paris. The ground feels as well-trampled as the battlefields before Troy. It’s in the interstices, of which I wanted more, that Haynes is at her best, and in her intriguing recasting of the whole as an ecological fable... If you are new to myths, then this is a learned, well-fashioned introduction, with many shining moments of subtle power.