Over the past decade, modern retellings of myths have exploded in popularity, becoming a staple of both young adult and adult fiction. Jennifer Saint, author of a well-received retelling of the myth of Ariadne, returns with an even more ambitious retelling: the Trojan War. (To explain the myth would be to spoil the book, so read the linked article at your own discretion.)
As has become a defining feature of the genre, the focus of “Elektra” is not on the classic heroes and villains — Agamemnon, Paris, Odysseus and the other combative men — but on the women they love, betray and abandon. In this tale, that is Clytemnestra, married to Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army; Elektra, her daughter; and Cassandra, a Trojan princess blessed with visions from Apollo but cursed to be forever disbelieved.
War is often told through stories of the men’s battlefield — the exhaustion of fighting, the grief of watching your brothers-in-arms be struck down and the glory of a hard-won victory. But there is a hidden side to wars like this, wars fought only to protect the egos of kings: the barbaric cruelty of it all, made all the worse by its futility. So Saint ignores the men and their bloodshed, their petty infighting and the triumphs that bolster their bloated pride. Instead, she focuses on the women: Clytemnestra, whose husband sacrifices their daughter for a fair wind in his sails, who runs a country in his absence and plots vengeance for her daughter; Helen, on whom this whole war is blamed, who knows that the Greeks are fighting for notoriety and wealth far more than for her; Cassandra, who sees what is coming and tries in vain for years to get anyone to listen, who ultimately pays more for this pointless war than any of the men. All these women and more, many more, who pick up the pieces and do their best for one another, who grieve with each other even across enemy lines, who have none of the say and yet bear most of the burden.
Women in Greek mythology are usually at best forgotten, at worst abhorred. Helen and Clytemnestra are particularly villainized in the mythological canon, these two sisters who reputedly did such terrible things to advance their own station in life. But it was not them who burned a city to the ground, slaughtered the sons and husbands and brothers lying dead on Troy’s beaches, and kidnapped the women into slavery, scattering them across the sea. All of this brutality was for men’s satisfaction, for their desire to see a too-beautiful woman humiliated and for the riches and women they could plunder.
Yet the men do not earn history’s ire as these two women do, these men whose families wait so desperately for them back home while they commit such terrible atrocities against the women of Troy: A mother’s beloved, gentle child, returning home as a man with an enslaved woman in tow, a prize he won for murdering her family. It’s both enraging and heartbreaking, the sort of story you cannot stop reading and also need to set down every chapter to let yourself process the emotions it stirs. Saint proves once again, as she did in “Ariadne,” that she is a master at layering narratives of motherhood, sisterhood and oppression to invoke a uniquely female pain and fury that is at once timeless and tied tightly to the particular myth she tells.
The main sticking point for all of this, though — and the reason I could not truly love this book — is that Elektra remains a figure shrouded in mystery and confusion. One might assume that the titular character would be the most sympathetic one, but instead, she’s the least understandable. Her driving force is a fierce, unyielding devotion to her father Agamemnon. She does not care that her father murdered her sister; she does not care that he took a Trojan woman as a sexual slave; and she does not care that his pride is responsible for dragging on the war. She sees him only as what a man should be: strong, imposing and powerful. She is desperate for his return, and she despises her mother for every betrayal and slight against him.
You can rationalize your way into understanding her if you ponder it enough. Her loving mother, struck with unimaginable grief, falls into a depression from which she cannot truly care for or bond with her children. The father she adores, away at war, becomes her solace and her hope. Her only real friend, a farmer’s son, tells her stories he has heard from his father about Agamemnon as a great king who restored Elektra’s divinely cursed family to righteousness. This festers inside of her until she is blinded by it, unable to see her mother as a woman who loves her and instead only as her father’s (and, by extension, her) enemy. And in a cursed family racked with violence and pain, perhaps it is simply in her blood to continue the bloodshed.
All of this sort of makes sense. In a way. Maybe. But you can never really feel Elektra’s hatred and anger the way you can feel Clytemnestra’s and Cassandra’s. You never agree with her actions, never take her side, never even experience that stomach-twisting combination of knowing she’s wrong and yet hoping for her sake that she succeeds. She remains unlikeable and unconvincing. Entertaining? Absolutely. But in a book so driven by characters and the awful choices they make, Elektra really needs to sell it. She doesn’t.
Clytemnestra’s depiction also deserves part of the blame here; her reasons for emotionally abandoning her daughter are too feebly explained away, especially once she has risen from the depths of grief. It’s inexplicable that Clytemnestra, a devoted mother, did not try to rebuild her relationship with her youngest daughter in all those years of war, and it leaves you wondering what has been left unwritten.
Not all of this fault can be placed on Saint. After all, she is retelling a myth, and the plot is already laid out for her. She could not make Clytemnestra and Elektra heal their relationship, nor could she invent another catastrophe to keep them apart. And perhaps the true problem resides in the timeline necessitated by the myth — the story covers decades of these characters’ lives, and there is no possible way to tell of every action, every hand extended, every conversation throughout that time. Yet there just seems to be something missing from the telling, something that leaves it all not quite adding up.
All in all, “Elektra” checks a lot of boxes and reaffirms what Saint does well: the narratives hit hard emotionally (in a way that lingers long after you put the book down), her writing is superb and she breathes new life and perspectives into old stories. I was thoroughly entertained and disturbed, just as Greek myths are supposed to do, and I remain struck by her portrayals of war, family and duty. However, one of the three narrators was mostly lost on me for half the book. Although I could partially immerse myself in Elektra’s perspective if I tried hard enough, at some point I just decided to read her as an outside observer witnessing her thoughts and behavior, rather than trying to get inside her head. If that’s how you read normally, maybe it won’t bother you. But there were pieces missing for me and I found myself periodically tripping over the holes they left.
Daily Arts Writer Brenna Goss can be reached at email@example.com.