Review by Annabel
The current vogue for feminist retellings of stories from Greek and Roman myths and legends is showing no signs of slowing down and long may it continue. Last year Jennifer Saint’s first novel Ariadne (reviewed here on its recent paperback release) was a huge bestseller and great fun to read. She’s back this year with another novel named after an ancient Greek heroine.
Her primary character this time is Elektra: the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and sister of Iphigenia and Orestes. Agamemnon is the brother of Menelaus, born of the line of the cursed House of Atreus, who married half-sisters Clytemnestra and Helen respectively (Helen being born from an egg after Zeus as a swan raped Leda, their mother).
Central to this family’s story is the siege of Troy, and having studied book two of Virgil’s Aeneid for my Latin O-level all those years ago and enjoying this strand of ancient Greek myth and legend ever since, I was looking forward to Saint’s version told by the women. Rather than just use Elektra’s point of view, Saint also uses Clytemnestra and to a slightly lesser extent, Cassandra – the Trojan princess prophetess who was cursed never to be believed. We begin though with Clytemnestra who introduces us to her family:
The House of Atreus carried a curse. A particularly gruesome one, even by the standards of divine torment. The history of the family was full of brutal murder, adultery, monstrous ambition and rather more cannibalism than one would expect. Everyone knew of it, but when the Atreidae, Agamemnon and Menelaus, stood before me and my twin sister in Sparta a lifetime ago, well, the silly stories of infants cooked and served up to their parents seemed to shimmer and crumble like dust motes in sunlight.
In the next chapter, Cassandra takes the helm, and likewise introduces us to her parents, Priam and Hecabe (aka Hecuba), the king and queen of Troy, and her younger brother Paris who was meant to have been killed as a baby to prevent a prophecy about the fall of Troy coming true, but was brought up by a shepherd. Cassandra is yet to be cursed by Apollo, and Paris has not run off with Helen yet, setting the Trojan war in motion.
We don’t hear from Elektra until the sixth chapter, when she sick with a fever, hears Helen’s name, and we know that war is on its way. Shortly afterwards this is where the first of a series of brutal murders occurs. The curse of Atreus continues to beset this family line.
The Greek fleet is ready to set sail, but before it goes, Elektra’s older sister Iphigenia is told she is to be married to the great warrior Achilles at sunrise. This is but a tragic ruse for she is sacrificed to ensure fair winds and victory. Clytemnestra is shocked to her core.
A long time later, I would hear the bards sing of my daughter’s death, along with all the other stories they sang of Troy. Often, they would say that at the very moment Agamemnon raised the knife, Artemis took pity on Iphigenia and swapped her for a deer. […] It’s poetic and pretty, and so very clean.
But I saw her body convulse in her father’s arms as he drew that blade across her throat. I held her, warm and bleeding and dead on the beach, whilst the sun climbed higher in the sky and the winds whipped up around us.
Clytemnestra’s version is missing some of the legend’s usual details: Artemis having becalmed the fleet due to Agamemnon having killed a stag in her sacred grove, the sacrifice of his first-born being the price to set sail. This sets Clytemnestra on the path to revenge, and with Agamemnon fighting at Troy, she brings in his wily cousin Aegisthus as her consort in his place. Elektra quietly seethes, and struggles under their rule. The return of Agamemnon, victorious from Troy with his prize Cassandra as concubine, ensures that the killing spree will continue.
Elektra loves her father dearly and hates her mother for having betrayed him with Aegisthus. She can’t come to terms with her mother’s grief and need for revenge over the sacrifice of her daughter and she can’t forgive Clytemnestra for disloyalty to her father either. No wonder Jung named a complex after her! (Where a daughter competes with her mother for the affections of her father – the opposite of Freud’s Oedipus complex in effect.)
However, the star of this novel is really Clytemnestra, who has far more steel than Elektra. It is fair that Clytemnestra gets the lead billing for as long as she is in the story. In the initial stages of the novel, Elektra as a teenaged girl rather whines and mopes around, building up the righteous chip on her shoulder, later on becoming rather a lefty by marrying out in Saint’s version and urging her younger brother Orestes to do the dastardly deeds he was prophesied to perform.
I was also slightly puzzled by Saint’s decision to include Cassandra as one of the narrators. Yes, she gives the other side’s point of view, and bridges the Aegean, but adds little to the downfall of the House of Atreus which is at the heart of this novel. I also missed the intervention of the gods and goddesses this time, the introduction of Dionysus to Ariadne’s story was divine! This time the immortals were very much in the background.
Maybe it’s my familiarity with the story, but I thought this second novel was slightly less successful than Ariadne. However, that said, it was still a jolly good read. I hope Saint continues to plough this furrow as there are plenty more ancient Greek women to explore in novels. Who next? Maybe Andromeda, or Medusa perhaps?
Annabel is a co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors. Her personal blog is at AnnaBookBel.
Jennifer Saint, Elektra (Wildfire, 2022). 978-1472273918, 341pp., paperback.
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