Elektra, by Jennifer Saint
I received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.
Maybe it’s me, but when I see a book described as a retelling – particularly of something from Greek mythology – I expect to get new insights, a twist on the narrative, or something else unexpected. Sadly, I did not get any of those from this book.
I know a fair bit about Greek mythology – I’m not an expert, but I’ve done my share of reading. I know the story of the House of Atreus; it’s why I was so keen to read a new version of Elektra’s story. I can’t really imagine being someone who doesn’t know about the stories wanting to pick up this book; why would you? But if you are like me, and you do know about Elektra and her parents, then I feel that this book doesn’t really offer anything. And I’m a bit sad about that.
One unexpected thing that the book does have is three narrators. For all that it’s named for Elektra, there’s nearly as much space given to her mother, Clytemnestra, and the Trojan princess/eternally ignored prophet, Cassandra. Now, maybe having Clytemnestra there is an interesting foil for Elektra’s perspective – she is, after all, a child when Agamemnon heads off to war, and it’s Clytemnestra’s desire for vengeance that leads to the later events around Orestes. And Clytemnestra also allows the author to start the story much earlier, with the ‘wooing of Helen’ and all. And I understand why you’d have Cassandra too – the Trojan perspective – but it felt jarring in a book named for the Mycenaean daughter.
My final whinge is some of the anachronisms, which I found a bit uncomfortable. Firstly, the use of ‘Greek’ as a collective term for all the little city states who banned together to go reclaim/recapture Helen. Maybe ‘Hellene’ is too weird for a general reader? Is it too weird to have an explanatory note at the start of the book? I don’t know. But it made me a bit grumpy. And there were other little things too, mostly more concerned with atmosphere: it felt like Saint couldn’t decide whether she wanted this world to feel really familiar, just with added deities and exotic-ness; or whether she wanted to play up the temporal distance from the reader. I think she mostly leaned to the former, and so in an odd way Clytemnestra and Elektra and everyone felt too familiar.
So… a lot of things to complain about. Why did I finish it? It really is well written; it’s easy to read, the pacing is good, the language is often lovely. (I partly kept reading in the hopes of something different, too, which was a bad reason to continue but is nonetheless true.)
Could you read this if you didn’t know the source material? I think so. I think there’s enough explanation that you would be able to follow the intricacies of the different problems with no trouble. And perhaps that’s indeed part of the problem for me – everything was too laid out, I wasn’t required to do any thinking at all.