Over the past decade, modern tales of myth have exploded in popularity, becoming a staple of young adult and adult fiction. Jennifer Saint, author of a much-loved tale of the Ariadne myth, returns with an even grander tale: the Trojan War. (Explaining the myth would spoil the book, so read the linked article at your own discretion.)
As has become a defining characteristic of the genre, “Elektra” focuses not on the classic heroes and villains – Agamemnon, Paris, Odysseus and the other fighting men – but on the women they love, betray and abandon. In this tale, it is Clytemnestra, married to Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army; Elektra, his daughter; and Cassandra, a Trojan princess blessed with visions of Apollo but cursed to be forever in disbelief.
War is often told through stories of the battlefield of men – the exhaustion of battle, the heartbreak of seeing your brothers in arms felled, and the glory of a hard-won victory. But there is a dark side to wars like this, wars fought only to protect the egos of kings: the barbaric cruelty of it all, compounded by its futility. So Saint ignores the men and their bloodshed, their petty infighting and the triumphs that bolster their inflated pride. Instead, it focuses on women: Clytemnestra, whose husband sacrifices their daughter for a good wind in his sails, who rules a country in his absence and plots revenge for his daughter; Helen, who is blamed for this whole war, who knows that the Greeks are fighting much more for notoriety and wealth than for her; Cassandra, who sees what is coming and tries in vain for years to be heard, who ultimately pays more for this pointless war than any of the men. All these women and many more, picking up the pieces and doing their best for each other, crying with each other, even across enemy lines, having no say and yet carry most of the burden.
Women in Greek mythology are generally forgotten at best, abhorred at worst. Helen and Clytemnestra are particularly wicked in the mythological canon, these two sisters who are said to have done such terrible things to advance their own position in life. But they were not the ones who burned down a city, slaughtered sons, husbands and brothers lying dead on the beaches of Troy, and abducted enslaved women, scattering them across the sea. All this brutality was for satisfaction men, for their desire to see a too beautiful woman humiliated and for the riches and the women they could plunder.
Yet men do not earn the wrath of history as these two women do, these men whose families await them so desperately at home as they commit such terrible atrocities against the women of Troy: the child beloved and gentle of a mother, returning home as a man with an enslaved woman in tow, an award he won for murdering his family. It’s both infuriating and heartbreaking, the kind of story you can’t stop reading and also have to write down each chapter to let you process the emotions it stirs. Saint proves once again, as she did in “Ariadne”, that she is a master at layering stories of motherhood, sisterhood and oppression to invoke pain and unique feminine fury that are both timeless and closely tied to the particular myth she tells.
The main sticking point for all of this, however – and the reason why I couldn’t quite like this book – is that Elektra remains a figure shrouded in mystery and confusion. One would assume the titular character would be the most likable, but instead she’s the least understandable. Her driving force is a fierce and unyielding devotion to her father Agamemnon. She doesn’t care that her father murdered her sister; she doesn’t care that he took a Trojan woman as a sex slave; and she doesn’t care that her pride is responsible for dragging out the war. She sees him only as a man should be: strong, imposing and powerful. She is desperate for his return and she despises her mother for every betrayal and insult against him.
You can streamline the way you understand it if you give it enough thought. His loving mother, stricken with unimaginable grief, falls into a depression from which she cannot truly care for or bond with her children. The father she adores, gone to war, becomes her comfort and her hope. His one true friend, a farmer’s son, tells him stories he heard from his father about Agamemnon as a high king who brought justice to the divinely cursed family of Elektra. It festers inside her until she is blinded by it, unable to see her mother as a woman who loves her and instead only as the enemy of her father (and, by extension, his) . And in a cursed family torn apart by violence and pain, it may just be in her blood to keep the bloodshed going.
It all makes sense. In a sense. Maybe. But you can never really feel Elektra’s hatred and anger like you can feel Clytemnestra and Cassandra’s. You never agree with her actions, never take her side, never even experience that bewildering combination of knowing she’s wrong and hoping for her to succeed. She remains unfriendly and unconvincing. Entertaining? Absolutely. But in a book so driven by the characters and the terrible choices they make, Elektra really needs to sell. She doesn’t.
The depiction of Clytemnestra also deserves some blame here; her reasons for emotionally abandoning her daughter are too weakly explained, especially once she emerges from the depths of grief. It’s inexplicable that Clytemnestra, a devoted mother, didn’t try to rebuild her relationship with her youngest daughter during all those years of war, and it leaves you wondering what went unwritten.
All this defect cannot be blamed on Saint. After all, she is telling a myth and the plot is already plotted for her. She couldn’t force Clytemnestra and Elektra to heal their relationship, or invent another catastrophe to separate them. And perhaps the real problem lies in the timeline necessitated by the mythos – the story spans decades of these characters’ lives, and there’s no possible way to tell every action, every outstretched hand, every conversation throughout this period. Still, it just seems like there’s something missing in the narrative, something that lets it all not quite add up.
Overall, “Elektra” checks a lot of boxes and reaffirms what Saint does well: the stories hit hard emotionally (in a way that lingers long after you put the book down), its writing is superb, and it infuses a new life and perspectives. in old stories. I was completely amused and disturbed, just as Greek myths are supposed to be, and I remain struck by its depictions of war, family, and duty. However, one of the three narrators mostly lost me for half of the book. Although I could partially immerse myself in Elektra’s perspective if I tried hard enough, at one point I just decided to read her as an outside observer witnessing her thoughts and behavior, rather than just reading her. trying to get inside his head. If this is how you normally read, you might not mind. But I was missing parts and periodically found myself tripping over the holes they left.
Daily Arts editor Brenna Goss can be reached at [email protected].