Nothing reeks of trauma and death and shattered dreams quite like a Greek tragedy. Even the more heroic epics, such as The Iliad, often see the heroes victorious but slain among their enemies. But what of those left behind, those doomed to pick up the pieces in the aftermath? What of those stepped on and over by these so-called heroes on their path to glory? What of their “prizes,” those they claim as trophies after their victories? In other words, what of the women?
“Can’t you see that it just goes on, over and over? The gods demand their justice, but we suffer for it, every time.”
Elektra had a much clearer message than Saint’s debut novel, Ariadne. Ariadne did bring forth the plight of women in the ancient world, and demonstrate that heroes often come with a dark side, but that was about it. This novel, however, speaks of violence begetting more violence, of revenge being cyclical and all-consuming and never as fulfilling as one hopes. It speaks of obsession, and how that obsession can skew one’s views of events. And, most of all, it hammers home the saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” What the two have in common, and what I like the most about them outside of their setting and status as Greek retellings, is a distinctly feminist take on historically masculine stories.
“To be surprised, you had to have a belief that the world would follow its rhythms and patterns as it had always done.”
Our story is told from three perspectives. Elektra, our title character, actually felt like the least important of the three, though she is the last woman standing. Youngest daughter of Agamemnon, the king of all Greek kings, Elektra is fiercely loyal to her father, and yearns for nothing more than his safe return from Troy. Her devotion is religious, and almost even romantic in nature. Because she was so young when he left for Troy, she has idolized him in such a way as to propel him into near godlike status in her mind and heart. She would do literally anything for her father and her king, up to and including allowing herself to be sacrificed to the gods if he requested it of her.
“The shriek of agony in our souls, that could only be soothed by one thing. Revenge.”
Which brings us to our second perspective character, Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of his children. Including the eldest daughter he so callously sacrifices to the gods in exchange for a fair wind to sail his ships to Troy. Clytemnestra is shocked, appalled, devastated by the suddenness and cruelty of the loss, and yearns for nothing more than Agamemnon’s safe return from Troy. So she can kill him herself. So obsessed is she with her loss and her plot for vengeance that she can see nothing else. Including the three children left to her.
“We would lay down our lives for our children, and every time we faced birth, we stood on the banks of that great river that separated the living from the dead. A massed army of women, facing that perilous passage with no armor to protect us, only our own strength and hope that we would prevail.”
Our last perspective character is Cassandra, princess and doomed prophetess of Troy. She is a priestess of Apollo but, because she spurned his romantic advances, she is cursed to always see what horrors the future holds and never find anyone to believe her. When Agamemnon brings the Grecian armies to Troy to reclaim his brother’s wife, Helen, Cassandra sees the devastation to come. And when her unheeded prophecies come true, she is taken as Agamemnon’s own war prize. Which means that she sees his doom coming.
“Don’t think about what he did. Think about how we’ll punish him for it.”
I didn’t find any of these perspective characters likable. But I actually didn’t mind that in regards to this particular story. When you know how things are going to end before the story even begins, you don’t mind not forming an attachment to the characters. However, while I didn’t find these women very sympathetic, I did find them interesting. If I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be Clytemnestra. Her single-minded focus on vengeance might be a flawed one, but you can’t help but respect her for following through. She’s the most interesting character in the Oresteia, in my opinion, and I enjoyed her portion of that story as told in this novel. I’ve always been a bit fascinated by Cassandra, whose wretched existence has become such a popular archetype. (For example, Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter has a Cassandra complex.)
“Why would I be afraid? You can only fear if you have something to lose, and I have nothing.”
Outside of the main characters, my favorite was actually Helen. I loved this portrayal of her; it didn’t excuse her actions, but it gave her more character and empathy than I’ve witnessed in other interpretations. The most despicable character in this novel is Agamemnon, without a doubt. One thing that every retelling of The Iliad and related works seems to agree on in that Agamemnon was simply a terrible human being. Which made Elektra and her devotion to him my least favorite of the three perspectives in the book.
“They hated her because she was so beautiful and because she made them want her so much. Nothing brought them more joy than the fall of a lovely woman. They picked over her reputation like vultures, scavenging for every scrap of flesh they could devour.”
Over the past couple of years, I’ve consumed multiple retellings and translations of The Iliad and this is the first I’ve read that focuses on the women in the background. I know that there other others, specifically The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker and A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, but I haven’t yet gotten around to those. And I’ve never come across a retelling of the Oresteia, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the story.
“I have become the master of my passions, and I know now that however strong the grip of agony, however fiercely it squeezes me in its terrible embrace, it can never break me.”
Elektra is not a happy tale, but if you know that going in, it’s a very interesting one. Saint’s writing in this novel was lovely, and captured her characters well. I still can’t help comparing it to Madeline Miller’s work, which I think is simply stronger in philosophical depth and character development and poetic prose. But that’s a subjective stance. I will say that I enjoyed Elektra more than Ariadne, and could see true growth on Saint’s part between the two novels. I will definitely be reading anything else she publishes in the mythological retelling vein.
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