Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

There are so many Greek mythology retellings around at the moment I thought this one might be too similar to others I’ve read recently (particularly Jennifer Saint’s Elektra) – but I needn’t have worried. With Clytemnestra, Costanza Casati makes a familiar story feel fresh and different, and as a debut novel it’s quite impressive.

Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy’s sister, is most often remembered as the wife of Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae who sacrifices their daughter Iphigenia to summon a wind so he can sail off to join the Trojan War. The heartbroken Clytemnestra takes her revenge on Agamemnon, which in turn provokes their other children, Electra and Orestes, to plot a revenge of their own. Casati’s novel does cover all of this, but a large part of the book is actually devoted to Clytemnestra’s early life as a princess of Sparta, daughter of Tyndareus and Leda, the King and Queen.

Like other Spartan women, Clytemnestra and her sisters are taught to fight, run and wrestle as children and grow up enjoying more independence and freedom than women elsewhere in Ancient Greece. This means that whenever life doesn’t go quite the way they hoped it would, they have the determination and the inner strength to take steps to change things. Early in the novel, a priestess delivers a prophecy that ‘the daughters of Leda will be twice and thrice wed…and they will all be deserters of their lawful husbands’ and over the course of the story we see this prediction begin to come true.

The thing I particularly enjoyed about this novel – and the thing that makes it different from others I’ve read – is that it focuses not just on Clytemnestra and Helen, whose stories are well known, but also on their other siblings. We get to know Castor and Polydeuces (sometimes called Pollux), their twin brothers who go in search of the Golden Fleece with Jason and the Argonauts, their sister Timandra, who marries King Echemus of Arcadia, and the two youngest sisters, Phoebe and Philonoe, who don’t have large parts to play but are not left out of the story either. By spending so much time on Clytemnestra’s childhood and her relationships with her family members, her character is given more depth, so that by the time she is married off to Agamemnon and the familiar, tragic part of her story is set into motion, we have come to know Clytemnestra well and to understand how her environment and upbringing have made her into the person she is.

Something else I found interesting was the portrayal of Clytemnestra’s first marriage to Tantalus, King of Maeonia, shown here to be a marriage made for love, in contrast to her later forced marriage to Agamemnon. Some versions of the Clytemnestra myth don’t make any reference to Tantalus at all, but including him here and showing how Clytemnestra’s life could have followed an entirely different course if he had lived adds another layer to the story.

Clytemnestra is written in present tense, which is never going to be a style I particularly like, but otherwise I found this book very enjoyable. I hope Costanza Casati will write more like this – if so, I think I’ll be adding her to my list of favourite modern Greek mythology authors, along with Natalie Haynes, Madeline Miller and Jennifer Saint.

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

25 thoughts on “Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

  1. margaret21 says:

    I’m increasingly enjoying books written in the present tense. I like the immediacy it gives to the narrative. So as you enjoyed the book despite this particular personal dislike, this is one I’ll look out for. I loved Greek myths as a child, and am horrified at the extent to which I’ve forgotten them.

  2. Margaret Quiett says:

    Glad to hear you liked this book; it’s on my hold list at the library and I’m eager to read it. I’m also a follower of Natalie Haynes, Jennifer Saint and Madeline Miller—I love ancient Greek myth, history, literature and philosophy!

  3. MarinaSofia says:

    It is a bit of a fashion now with tje retelling of Greek myths but I like them anyway… and have a lot of sympathy for Clytemnestra. Agamemnon really done her wrong!

    • Helen says:

      There are a lot of these books around at the moment, but this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve read for a while. And yes, poor Clytemnestra!

  4. Janette says:

    I’m glad to read this review, because, like you, I thought it might be similar to Elektra. It definitely sounds very different though so I’ll add it to my TBR.

    • Helen says:

      I think I preferred this book to Elektra. I loved the focus on Clytemnestra’s relationships with her siblings and first husband, which made it a bit different!

  5. Cyberkitten says:

    Interesting! As you say, there’s SO many of these books around ATM but this one looks like a winner. I have a stack of similar books – both fiction and non-fiction – scheduled for later in the year.

  6. Lark says:

    Fun that you get to read about her siblings in this book! I really don’t like present tense novels either, but I do like the sound of this book. I might have to check it out. 🙂

  7. GoAnnelies - In Another Era says:

    Clythemnestra really seems the most popular subject in these myth retellings. I first wanted to skip on this one, but most reviews say it’s a great book so now I want to read it badly 😅 the fact that we learn more about her childhood reminds me of Claire Heywood’s ‘Daughters of Sparta’ where the beginning of the book did a bit the same.

  8. whatmeread says:

    It seems as if you at one time said you didn’t really like novels set in ancient or mythic times, but maybe I’m thinking of someone else. You seem to be reading a lot of them! I am getting tired of them, I think, which is why I didn’t read Madeleine Miller’s Circe.

  9. Calmgrove says:

    Hmm, I don’t mind some present tense narrative providing it serves a dramatic purpose within a past tense story – anything more and I find it exhausting in a full length novel (less so in a novella or short story).

    I read a few mytho-historical novels when I was younger but only once in a blue moon these days, and C S Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is currently one of these, Lewis’s 1956 take on the Cupid and Psyche story, which I’m enjoying.

    • Helen says:

      There are lots of fascinating Greek mythology retellings around at the moment. This is a really good one! And thank you – I hope you’re having a good week too.

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