The Greek myth of Medea is transposed to 18th century India in Rani Selvarajah’s debut novel, Savage Beasts. Although I haven’t read very much about Medea – except where she has appeared as a secondary character in other novels I’ve read, such as Madeline Miller’s Circe – it was actually the Indian setting that attracted me to this book rather than the Greek myth aspect and I expect it will have equal appeal to readers of historical fiction and those who enjoy mythology retellings.
The novel opens in 1757 in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). The East India Company, under the leadership of Sir Peter Chilcott, are advancing on Bengal and war seems inevitable, but James Chilcott, Sir Peter’s nephew, has arrived in Calcutta ready to make a bargain. He is prepared to betray the company and reveal their plans, he says, but he wants something from the Nawab of Bengal in return. Although the Nawab isn’t convinced, his daughter, Meena, is captivated by the handsome young Englishman and agrees to help him. When things go wrong, James and Meena are forced to flee Bengal, leaving a scene of death and devastation in their wake.
So far, I could see the parallels with mythology – Meena in the role of Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and James as Jason, who comes to Colchis on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. When Meena and James leave Bengal, they encounter Meena’s aunt, Kiran, whom I quickly identified with Circe. The later parts of the myth are less familiar to me, but as far as I could tell the novel continued to follow the basic outline, with one or two nice twists towards the end.
What let this novel down for me was the writing. I hate to be too critical of an author’s first novel, but I did find some of the word choices odd or inappropriate. Characters ‘smirk’ all the time, on almost every page – that’s when they’re not ‘sneering’ or ‘scoffing’. I lost count of how many times these words were repeated. I also struggled to believe in Meena as a convincing woman of her time. It seemed unlikely that the daughter of a Nawab (a Mughal ruler of similar status to a prince) would have the freedom to hang around the docks of Bengal on her own, as Meena does in the opening chapter, and her subsequent actions feel more and more anachronistic.
I did like the basic concept of moving the Medea story to 18th century India and the idea of James/Jason as part of a colonial power coming to take what they can from Bengal/Colchis is an intriguing one. For this to work, though, there really needed to be a stronger sense of time and place, but sadly, I couldn’t think of the characters as anything other than modern people in historical costume. Despite my negativity, I stuck with the book to the end and did occasionally become drawn into the story; it’s been receiving a mixture of reviews, including plenty of four and five star ones, so evidently other readers have enjoyed it more than I did. Give it a try if it appeals – and please let me know if there are any other retellings of the Medea myth you can recommend!
Thanks to HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 21/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.