If you’ve been here a while, then you know that I am a bona fide Madeline Miller fangirl. I’ve written two posts about Miller’s bestselling retellings of classical myths, Circe and The Song of Achilles, both of which I cannot recommend highly enough. But Miller is not the only one reimagining ancient stories from new perspectives: in fact, classical mythology has been having a bit of a moment in fiction for the last few years. And I, predictable classicist and lover of historical fiction that I am, have been devouring them. These are my thoughts (and my 5-star ratings) on a few of my recent myth-inspired reads! I’ve done my best to avoid as many spoilers as possible, but if you know your myths, you’ll already know how some of these turn out.
The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (2018, Doubleday)
In what has become a very common premise, this book retells the story of the Iliad from a perspective never heard from in the original. In Barker’s version, it’s Briseis who tells the story: the novel begins on the day her city is sacked. Her husband and brothers are murdered by Achilles, and the next day she is given to him as his war prize. There is none of the rehabilitation of Achilles that we see in other novels (like The Song of Achilles), and no shying away from the brutal realities of what happened to women during war. Briseis unblinkingly examines her fall from queen to slave and her new life in the Greek camp, but she also recognizes how lucky she is: as Achilles’ prize of honor, she is protected from the even more degrading cruelties inflicted on the “common” women, who are open to use and abuse from anyone and don’t even have proper beds to sleep in. Barker as Briseis explores the emotional complexity of hating someone you’re now forced to live with, to sleep with, whose child you eventually bear, the closeness that proximity alone can create, and the necessity of compartmentalizing grief in order to survive such a situation. Apart from the occasional heavy-handed passage, and the unnecessary awkwardness of switching between Patroclus’ and Achilles’ and Briseis’ perspectives in the second half, this book is beautifully and poignantly done.
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (2018, Jonathan Cape)
If you’re looking for a total mind fuck, this book is it. Daisy Johnson reinvents Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in modern England and tells the story through flashbacks—some are from the perspective of the Oedipus character, some from the perspective of the narrator who knew the Oedipus character as a child and now, twenty years later, has been forced to confront her childhood trauma in the person of her long-lost mother and the river monster they used to fear. In flashbacks, the Oedipus character leaves home and enters the woods around the river in an attempt to escape the terrible prophecy of what they will do with their parents. Among the people who live on the river, as they experiment with gender and identity, they unwittingly encounter their birth parents and fulfill the prophecy. In the present, the narrator finally learns some of what happened on the river when she was too young to understand it; she learns why her mother abandoned her and struggles to repair their relationship; and she learns how the Oedipus character’s adoptive parents have carried on with their lives in spite of their child’s disappearance.
Now, I am getting a PhD in Classics. I’ve read my Sophocles; I know the Oedipus trilogy and the cycle of stories about his children. It’s a testament to Daisy Johnson’s writing that despite knowing the myth intimately well, and despite having figured out early on who certain characters in the novel corresponded to in the myth, there were large portions of this book in which I had NO idea what was going to happen next. Johnson includes all the major plot points of Oedipus Rex and includes homages to some aspects of the myth that don’t otherwise fit neatly into her version, like the presence of a threatening mythical creature and the Oedipus character’s limp—but she also puts her own spin on the story in a really inventive way, altering the ending in a way that took me completely by surprise. She also takes a closer look at characters who are only minor players in Sophocles’ version, tenderly examining the prophet who warns Oedipus and the adoptive parents that Oedipus abandons.
The Oedipus myth is well-known and well-trod ground, so I’m always amused by reviews from readers who clearly didn’t know what they were getting in to and are shocked by the graphic nature of Everything Under. If you don’t want to read about murder and problematic sexual encounters, then don’t read a book based on Oedipus. But if you don’t mind the subject matter and you love twisting plots and gorgeous prose, then this is the book for you.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017, Riverhead Books)
I’ll be totally honest: this book broke me. I listened to the audiobook in 3 days at the beginning of the summer, and I still haven’t stopped thinking about it. This book should be required reading for everyone.
Another reinvention of Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, Home Fire adapts the tragedy Antigone as the story of 21st-century Palestinian-British youths who bear the unimaginable consequences of the sins of their fathers. Shamsie brilliantly maps Antigone‘s central conflicts and themes—love and loyalty to family and religion, even if that conflicts with loyalty to the state—onto modern conflicts over immigration and the treatment of Muslim immigrants in particular; the double consciousness of immigrants; tension between those who choose to assimilate to the new state’s culture and those who hold fast to their traditions; the radicalization of youth and the way those youths’ choices are rendered irrevocable, even if they have a change of heart; the bonds of familial loyalty and what happens when those bonds are strained to the breaking point.
This is another book where, once I figured out which figures from Sophocles’ tragedy mapped onto which novel characters, I knew what was coming in a general sense (you know, death and destruction) but couldn’t figure out how exactly Shamsie would finally make it happen. Again, I know my Sophocles, so I knew what had to happen and who had to die, but even so, when it finally happened it felt like Shamsie had ripped my heart out and stomped it into a pulp. Antigone contains timeless themes, but it’s one thing to know that intellectually and another thing to see a realistic version of those themes playing out in your own society.
Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin (2008, Harcourt)
I started out pretty excited about this book. This book is tangentially related to the Trojan War, but it’s the only Trojan War book I’ve read so far that doesn’t deal with the conflict directly. Instead, this book takes place on the Italian peninsula, in the years immediately before Aeneas arrives with his band of Trojan refugees and settles the towns in central Italy from which the Romans will descend. So LeGuin takes her inspiration and narrative cues from the Aeneid, rather than the Iliad and Odyssey. Lavinia, the Latin princess over whom Aeneas fights the Rutulian prince Turnus, speaks not one word in the Aeneid, so LeGuin has pretty much complete license to create the childhood and inner life of Lavinia from scratch.
LeGuin’s imagination of Lavinia’s childhood and adolescence up to her marriage to Aeneas is lovely and well done. She makes an interesting choice to have Lavinia visited by the spirit of Virgil as he lays dying and thus unable to flesh out her story in his Aeneid, which sometimes felt like a weird version of Virgilian apologetics, but overall didn’t bother me too much. The problems start in the second half of the book, which includes the founding of Lavinium, Aeneas’ death, and Ascanius’ inability to live up to his father’s standards. To be blunt, the second half is boring. One might argue that this is just because domestic disputes are not as interesting as big battles, but that isn’t it at all—the first third of this book is entirely domestic life and it’s lovely, and I’ve read plenty of other literature focused on domestic disputes that kept me on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately, I have to conclude that the second half of this book could have been interesting, but is just badly done. I know LeGuin is beloved; I haven’t read any of her other books, so I’ll do my best not to judge her by the fact that she seems to have gotten in over her head with Lavinia.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (2019, Pan Macmillan)
We began with a woman-focalized retelling of the Iliad, and we end with another. But unlike The Silence of the Girls, A Thousand Ships does not show the war through the eyes of one woman alone, but spends at least one chapter each on nearly all the named women associated with the Trojan War (Helen alone doesn’t get her own chapter because, well, Helen); and rather than describe the women’s experience of the war during the time frame of the Iliad, Haynes focuses on the aftermath of the war and the long-lasting consequences for each woman’s life.
In her afterword Haynes notes her reliance on Euripides’ Trojan Women, but you don’t need the afterword to see that: most chapters are named for and focus on one woman, but every 3-4 chapters returns chorus-like to the group of Trojan women on the beach, captive and waiting to be divvied up as prizes among the Greek warriors. These chapters are some of the most poignant, as Hecabe and her daughters, who have already lost so much, face yet more tragedy in the loss of each other’s fellowship. In Calliope’s chapters, the muse emphasizes that the heroism and hardship of war do not belong only to the fighting men, but to every member of society touched by the conflict; war is women’s burden as much as men’s, and non-combatants can be just as heroic. Haynes poignantly recreates the last moments of Creusa, Polyxena, Penthesilea, and Iphigenia; she never shies away from heartbreak but leans into the emotional devastation of Laodamia, Clytemnestra, and Hecabe; she beautifully crafts the tenuous but life-giving bonds between captive women. She examines Cassandra, the doomed prophet, from an outside perspective as well as from inside the girl’s mind tortured by unwanted visions of yet more devastation. She brilliantly reimagines Penelope’s supposedly patient 20 years of waiting as increasingly agitated letters to the long-lost Odysseus, and ends her arc with musing on whether it was ever possible for Odysseus to really return, as the person he used to be. Overall, this book is both tender and brutal in its reimagination and examination of the way war affects those who are so often on the sidelines of the story.
Stay tuned for more posts like this on other myth-inspired reads, including Ariadne by Jennifer Saint, Women of Troy by Pat Barker, and more!