Elektra by Jennifer Saint

I enjoyed Jennifer Saint’s first novel, Ariadne, a retelling of Greek myth from a female perspective, so I was looking forward to reading her new one, Elektra. If you’re familiar with Greek mythology, you’ll know Elektra as the daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and his wife Clytemnestra, the sister of Helen of Troy. In this novel, Jennifer Saint tells the stories of both Elektra and Clytemnestra, as well as another woman – Cassandra, the Trojan priestess and prophet.

Elektra begins with the Greeks preparing to go to war against Troy. In order to please the gods so they will produce a wind to allow the fleet to set sail, Agamemnon sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. The devastated Clytemnestra vows to take revenge on her husband, but she will have a long time to wait as the Trojan War will last ten years. Meanwhile, Iphigenia’s younger sister Elektra grows up watching in disapproval of her mother’s relationship with her new lover Aegisthus and waiting for her father to return. When Agamemnon does eventually come home – bringing Cassandra with him as a prize of war – further tragedy will strike the family and this time it is Elektra who is left vowing revenge.

This is another beautiful and insightful Greek retelling from Jennifer Saint, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Ariadne, probably because there were large parts of the Ariadne/Phaedra story that were new to me whereas I felt that this book was too similar to others I’ve read recently – Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, to name a few. If I’d known nothing about Troy or the House of Atreus, I’m sure I would have enjoyed this book much more. Still, there are scenes and moments that never lose their impact no matter how many times you’ve read them: Clytemnestra’s grief and agony when her husband murders their daughter or Cassandra’s desperation as she tries to convince her fellow Trojans that there are Greeks hiding in the giant wooden horse.

I do wonder why Elektra was chosen as the title of the novel, as it’s as much the story of Clytemnestra and Cassandra as it is of Elektra (each of them narrating their own chapters). In fact, for the first half of the book at least, Elektra’s role is the smallest – and she is certainly the most difficult to like of the three narrators. I had a lot of sympathy with the doomed Cassandra, both blessed with the gift of prophecy and cursed to never be believed, and while some of Clytemnestra’s choices may be questionable, how could you not feel for a mother who has lost a child in such a horrifying way? Elektra, though, is harder to understand; I didn’t think it was made very clear why she felt such loyalty to her father and why she could forgive his murderous actions but not her mother’s. Although I did enjoy Cassandra’s chapters, perhaps if they’d been left out there would have been more time to explore the relationship between Clytemnestra and Elektra.

Although this book wasn’t completely successful for me, I’ll look forward to more by Jennifer Saint, particularly if they focus less on Troy and more on other areas of Greek myth.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

11 thoughts on “Elektra by Jennifer Saint

    • Helen says:

      If you’re not very familiar with Greek mythology, I think this book would be a great introduction. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t read some very similar novels recently.

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I’m planning to read ‘Ariadne’ later in the year as well as ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller. Just to round things out I’m also planning to read ‘Amazons’ by John Man and ‘Pandora’s Jar’ by Natalie Haynes for a Greek Myth fortnight of reading. I think it’ll be fun!

  2. setinthepast says:

    It sounds interesting, but, as you say, this seems to be the “in” genre at the moment and there are just too many similar books coming out at the same time. At least it makes a change from Second World War books! Cassandra does seem to attract more attention than the other women -maybe it’s because she’s the only one with her own Abba song 🙂 .

    • Helen says:

      I don’t think we really need any more books about Troy at the moment, when there are other areas of Greek myth that seem to get very little attention!

  3. whatmeread says:

    As to your musing in the next-to-last characters about her being more forgiving of Agamemnon (who was a real jerk, it seems) than her mother, that’s why they named Elektra complex after her, I guess.

  4. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    I have read and enjoyed this one and am reading Ariadne at the moment. I’m not quite sure which one I like most so far. I never really liked Elektra, I just think she’s wrong about her father. But I liked Clythemnestra and Cassandra is in this book!

    • Helen says:

      I preferred Ariadne, just because I was less familiar with that myth. I did enjoy this book too, particularly the chapters about Cassandra!

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