Black Ships by Jo Graham (book review).

‘Black Ships’ is an interesting retelling of Aeneus’s story from the perspective of Gull, a priestess of Apollo. While Jo Graham’s novel might simply be described as a ‘feminist retelling’ of the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Aeneid’ tailored to modern concerns and sensibilities, what she’s actually done here is a bit more interesting than that. After all, Aeneas’ story is about the clash of cultures, war, and the fate of those refugees who escape the ruin of their homeland. So, there’s a lot there that’s as relevant now as it ever was.

At the start of the novel, Gull herself is a young slave girl, taken into the temple by Apollo at Delphi. Eventually, she rises to become the seer, tying in various supernatural elements into the story. But, more importantly, in ancient Greek culture, priestesses were among the very few women with anything close to independent agency. Graham treads lightly around this issue, and to some extent, the relative equality of men and women in the story is anachronistic, to say the least.

This does not imply a complete disregard for the distinctions between men and women. Aeneas betrothes to a 12-year-old girl towards the end of the book. While that’s broadly consistent with the myth, it obviously creates problems for modern readers, as does Aeneas himself. Gull engineers a solution to this that protects the child while ensuring the mythological elements of the story remain intact.

One of the most celebrated and tragic episodes in the ‘Aeneid’ is where Aeneas meets and falls in love with the Carthaginian Queen Dido. The issue lies in the centuries-long time gap between Troy and Carthage. So, Graham instead has the Trojans rock up in Egypt, where Aeneas becomes involved with the Princess Basetamon, daughter of the Pharaoh Rameses III.

There is an attempt to convey Egypt’s alienness to the Greeks and Trojans. The Greeks and Trojans comment on the size and beauty of the cities, as well as the clothes and hairstyles of their denizens. However, the description lacks a significant amount of depth. Graham doesn’t quite get under the skin of Egyptian culture in the same way that, say, Norman Mailer managed in ‘Ancient Evenings’.

As I say, the historical details are mostly superficial, but by setting the novel in the time of the third Rameses, the events of ‘Black Ships’ take place during what is known as the Bronze Age Collapse. This was a period during which the Bronze Age civilisations of the Mediterranean declined or disappeared entirely. The Trojan War appears to be a mythological remembrance of this period, and ‘Black Ships’ explores this theme. Gull perceives the passing of her world and believes that Aeneas and his fellow refugees mark the beginning of a new world.

If the pacing is a bit slow at times, the story is at least pleasant and sometimes exciting. Yes, Graham is mainly writing a version of the ‘Aeneid’ that asks what the women were doing while the men were being heroic or villainous, but she does it well, and that’s really all one can ask for.

Neale Monks

May 2024

(pub: Orbit, 2009. 409 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-31606-799-7)

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