A truly refreshing and intriguing book : Read our review of Elektra by Melisande Aquilina
“If only I’d had the good fortune to be born a son, rather than a daughter… But I had grown up in the shade; unseen and unnoticed instead of shining brightly…”
Genre: Mythology Retelling, Classical Greek Mythology
Whether you are interested in Greek mythology, or fascinated by the complex and at times tumultuous relationships present in every family, you will be emotionally enraptured by Saint’s passionate retelling of a tragedy which has withstood the test of time. Readers who loved Madeline Miller’s Circe, will simply adore this book.
If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you will surely have heard of the lengthy siege of Troy. Of the unbeatable handsome Achilles, the wily Odysseus, the love-struck Paris and the cuckolded King Menelaus, whose wife’s flight to Troy led to the launching of a thousand ships into battle. But what about the women? What was happening back home, while a war which raged for ten years took place in front of the high walls of Troy?
Elektra (or ‘Electra’) is one of the most popular tragic figures in Greek mythology. In psychoanalysis, it was Carl Jung who coined the term ‘Electra Complex’, referring to a girl’s psychosexual competition with her mother for possession of her father’s attention. In Elektra, Saint portrays the familiar story of Troy as told from the perspective of three different women. At the centre of the story, we have Clytemnestra – Queen of Mycenae and wife of King Agamemnon who leads the consolidated Greek armies to war. Clytemnestra’s voice is a strong one. She is the sister of the famous beauty Helen, whose desertion of her husband is the perfect excuse for the power-hungry Agamemnon to seize control of all the forces of Greece against a common foe. The namesake of the book is Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who for ten years has idolized and waited for a father she hardly remembers. A father who, raised upon a pinnacle of fictional perfection, represents for her all the pure joys and innocence of childhood. Last but not least is Cassandra, Princess of Troy and Priestess of Apollo, who endowed with the power to see the future, is cursed to never be believed and is reviled as a liar and a hysterical madwoman.
Each of the three main characters is deliciously complex, as are the relationships between them. Elektra takes an insightful look at the intricately layered, rich, albeit sometimes tragic relationships between mother and daughter, and the emotional and psychological devastation war and betrayal bring. The nuances of the mother/daughter relationship are masterful, especially when portraying the way this can deteriorate into irrational fury and madness following unforgivable betrayal. On the other hand, Cassandra’s perspective not only shows the reader what is happening in Troy, but also lets us observe the foibles and fickle behavior of the Greek gods from the viewpoint of someone who has become their plaything. Cassandra’s description of the inner confusion that comes along with her gift is very moving, as is Apollo’s duplicity.
All these women have been betrayed by men. Again and again, Saint shows the reader the reality of the times, where in a world dominated by men, women were left to pick up the pieces. King Agamemnon treats his wife and daughters as if they were things to be used and discarded, instead of individuals, as do most of these men, born to rule in a patriarchal society. Women are considered puny and unimportant next to the promise of greatness. Elektra and Cassandra are passive bystanders, forced to wait and witness, but unable to interfere in major decisions directly. On the other hand, Clytemnestra, like her sister Helen, breaks through this pattern of placid futility and takes matters into her own hands. In fact, when they do so, both sisters are reviled and slandered by society for precisely this reason.
The overarching theme of the story is undoubtedly that of vengeance. Betrayal begats pain, pain gives birth to anger, which in turns leads to the thirst for blood, in a never-ending cycle of hatred and fury. Agamemnon’s behaviour is pivotal, shattering all three women’s lives forever, in different ways. Since Clytemnestra is the most dynamic and fully fleshed out of the three narrators, the reader cannot help but be drawn to her reasoning and perspective, even though it is Elektra’s single-minded obsession with her father which gives the name to the book. Clytemnestra and Elektra are two sides of the same coin. Both fueled by hatred and a desire for retribution. Only Cassandra moves away from this vicious cycle, prioritizing her family and her city until the end, instead of focusing on vengeance.
The creative, almost lyrical, language used in Elektra makes the story all the richer. All three women are given distinct voices, and the beautiful prose is paramount in creating the Classical Greek setting. Saint’s handling of the complex themes in the story is excellent. She doesn’t hide away from the more graphic or morally difficult issues, and instead contextualises them and creates what is overall, a beautifully told, gripping and devastating novel, perfect both for readers who are already familiar with the story, and those who are not. Elektra hums with emotion, and the question of how sustainable family loyalty is, when you have already been betrayed by those you love.
I would have liked for the characters of Elektra and Cassandra to be as fleshed out as Clytemnestra's, but I guess I can understand why Saint chose to portray them as she did. I can't help but think the title doesn't really fit the book, as the story isn't mainly about Elektra, but rather centres around all three different women, so this is kind of misleading. Also to be honest, the titular character was not very likeable or relatable. Another character I wanted to know more about was Helen, whom we only glimpse as a side-character now and then. We are never really told whether Helen was really in love with Paris or whether he snatched her away by force. Indeed, the mystery of Helen remains. Was she a selfish seductress or another powerless woman dragged by the currents of men’s prideful egos? I would also have liked to know more about the curse of the House of Atreus, of which Agamemnon was a descendant.
The point of a good story is that you are left wanting more.
While there have been many retellings of stories from Greek mythology, Jennifer Saint’s Elektra is a truly refreshing and intriguing book and I really enjoyed reading it.
N.B - Elektra will be published on May 3rd 2022. A proof copy was provided by Agenda Bookshop for the purpose of this review.