The Greek myths continue to fascinate and challenge both writers and readers. The last few years in particular have seen a number of authors tackling and re-imagining Greek mythology. From established authors like Colm Tóibín, Pat Barker and Mark Haddon to newer authors like Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint. Saint’s first book Ariadne, began with the story of Theseus and the Minotaur but told the tale from the perspective of Ariadne and her sister. While the start of that tale is well known much of the book focussed on stories that are slightly less in the public consciousness. In Elektra, Saint goes all in, tackling probably the best known and most retold of Greek myths – the siege of Troy, from its lead up to its just a bloody aftermath.
Saint tells her story from the perspective of three women. Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, Cassandra, sister of Paris and Elektra, one of the daughters of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon. The story starts with the marriage of Clytemnestra’s impossibly beautiful sister Helen to Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, a union that allows the brothers to take back their kingdom from their uncle. Later, Paris of Troy takes Helen away, precipitating the ten year war between Greece and Troy that told in Homer’s Illiad. But before the war even started Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphegenia for fair winds, an act that set his wife against him. Meanwhile, Elektra grows up, devoted to her father and suspicious of her mother, setting up another cycle of violence when the war ends.
While Elektra is a well written bringing together of a number of Greek tales, Saint brings very little new to the table. And as a result, Elektra suffers in comparison to other recent books that tackled the same series of stories. Recently Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and The Women of Troy, also take a female perspective to the Trojan War but use that to deeply interrogate gender relationships. Similarly, Colm Tóibín’s House of Names is a poetic retelling of the story of Clytemnestra and Electra and Barry Unsworth’s 2002 novel Song of Kings told the story of Iphigenia but with an eye to broader events.
Elektra will fit the bill for those looking for an engaging Greek history and mythology primer. Saint is a good story teller and this is one of the great all time stories. And she does breathe life into her three main characters. But the narrative does little more than that, treating the story as one to be retold rather than more deeply examined and explored for allegory and a broader view of the world.
For more of Robert’s reviews, visit his blog Pile By the Bed
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Ariadne (Jennifer Saint) – book review
- Saint X (Alexis Schaitkin) – book review
- Lemon (Kwon Yeo-sun) – book review
Robert Goodman is a book reviewer, former Ned Kelly Awards judge and institutionalised public servant based in Sydney. This and over 450 more book reviews can be found on his website Pile By the Bed.