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.