book review: Country by Michael Hughes

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COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

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book review: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

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THE CASSANDRA by Sharma Shields
★☆☆☆☆
Henry Holt, February 12, 2019

 

Writing this review hurts me a little because this was easily one of my most anticipated books of 2019, but I’m sorry, this was pretty terrible. The premise was genius: it’s the story of the Greek mythological figure Cassandra retold and set at Hanford, the research facility in the U.S. that developed the atomic bomb during WWII. But I had four main problems with The Cassandra that I just couldn’t get over: characters, plot, themes, and its success (or failure rather) as an adaptation, so let’s get straight into it.

Every single character in this book was one-dimensional. Within seconds of meeting Mildred (the Cassandra figure), her inexplicably awful mother and sister, her wise and worldly best friend Beth, the charming but cruel Gordon, and the pathetic but well-intentioned Tom Cat, you know what each one of their roles in this story is going to be (which has nothing to do with the myth at the heart of the narrative – more on that in a minute). Every single one of these characters is just pitifully one-note. None of their painfully obvious characterization is developed or explored or subverted, they all just exist comfortably as conduits for the story to advance where it needs to go.

Which brings us to the next problem, how the plot drives the characters and not the other way around. The book starts with Mildred relaying to the reader that she’s had a vision which tells her that she needs to go to Hanford, so that’s exactly what she does. She gets on the bus to head to the facility and she meets Beth, who shakes her hand and promptly declares that the two of them are going to be best friends, and that’s exactly what happens. We’re informed that Tom Cat falls in love with Mildred, because he just does, apparently; we don’t get to see anything develop in a natural or organic way. There’s no rhyme or reason to be found, the story just kind of zips along and you’re meant to accept that the characters’ actions makes sense even when there’s no basis to any of it.

And this would all be somewhat okay if the themes were sufficiently rich and engaging, but they just weren’t. Mildred starts having visions that ‘the product’ being developed at Hanford will wreak havoc and destroy innocent lives, but when she tries to warn the researchers, her concerns are ignored. Mildred then has to grapple with her own role in working for the facility that’s developing this weapon: even as a secretary, does she hold some kind of responsibility? There’s not… a whole lot of thematic depth to engage with there, despite very obvious present-day parallels, but this conflict is the main driving force in the story. And at another point, about 70% through the book, Mildred is brutally raped (as in, seriously brutal, do not enter into this book lightly), and Shields comes close to making some kind of point about how not believing Mildred about her visions has parallels to not believing women who are assaulted, but not much is really done with that opportunity.

And finally, this has to be one of the laziest myth adaptations I have ever read. There are two recognizable elements from the original story: that Cassandra can see the future and no one believes her prophecies, and that she’s raped. One of my favorite things about reading retellings is trying to discern which characters played which role in the original, and of course as a contemporary writer playing with an established story you should be allowed to invent characters and subvert character types and put your own unique stamp on the story, because otherwise what’s the point? But in this case, the original myth was such a rudimentary blueprint that it felt like the author wanted to use the myth only as an excuse to incorporate visions into the story without the reader questioning it too much. Mildred is Cassandra, of course (but why does Mildred get these visions in the first place? there’s no backstory involving an Apollo figure to rationalize this, it’s just another thing we’re meant to accept), and the person who rapes Cassandra is obviously Ajax the Lesser, but do not expect many other elements from the original myth to come into play. I certainly admired Shields’ research into the Hanford facility, but maybe she should have cracked open a copy of the The Oresteia while she was at it.

So, all things considered this was a pretty big disappointment. If you’re looking for a contemporary reimagining of a mythological story I’d suggest Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, or if you’re looking for feminist mythology there’s The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker or Circe by Madeline Miller. With so many fantastic mythological retellings published in the last few years, I think you can safely skip this one without missing much.

Thank you to Netgalley and Henry Holt for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review – sorry this didn’t work for me! 😦

book review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

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EVERYTHING UNDER by Daisy Johnson
★★★★☆
Jonathan Cape, 2018 (UK)

 

This novel was stunning. Everything Under is a retelling of a Greek myth (more on that in a second), set in the English countryside, which follows Gretel, a lexicographer, who’s recently tracked down her estranged mother Sarah. It’s a tricky plot to summarize as it unfolds with a nonlinear chronology, but it ultimately pieces together the fractured narrative that connects Gretel, Sarah, and a boy named Marcus who stayed with them on their riverboat for a month when Gretel was thirteen, before disappearing.

Daisy Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical; of the Man Booker longlisters I’ve read so far, I’d say she’s only behind Donal Ryan in terms of prose quality, which is an incredible feat. This book is stunningly atmospheric; the water beneath Gretel and Sarah’s riverboat feels like a living, breathing entity, and the whole novel has a tone that’s both vibrant and feral. It can be difficult to rework Greek mythology into a contemporary setting, but I felt that Johnson achieved this with aplomb, turning the ordinary into something almost mythical, which perfectly suited the kind of heightened drama that inevitably must unfold in a story like this.

I’m not really sure what’s going on with the marketing of this novel, because in some promos I’ve seen reference made to the myth it’s retelling, and in others I haven’t. I did know which myth it was going into it, and rather than hampering my experience with the novel I think it enhanced it. But I have seen others say they wished they hadn’t known this information ahead of time as the knowledge does naturally give away quite a few plot points. But I don’t think it’s a novel which endeavors to shock the reader with its twists and turns, and with fate and free-will at its thematic center, I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out where the story is headed, even quite early on. So, I guess it’s up to you whether you want to look up the myth it’s retelling, but if you’re a Greek mythology lover, I think you’ll enjoy knowing ahead of time so you can properly appreciate Johnson’s positively masterful foreshadowing and symbolism.

The reason I’ve dropped it down to 4 stars from 5, which I thought it would be for most of the time I was reading, was that I wasn’t very enamored with certain elements of the ending. I have to quote my friend Hannah’s review where she talks about the last 20% of the novel: “Here Johnson makes quite a lot of the subtext text” – this was my main issue as well. The stunning subtlety that I had so admired about the first three quarters of this book was sacrificed for a very literal manifestation of one of the novel’s themes, adding a sort of fantastical element that I didn’t think was necessary. What can I say, I just don’t like magical realism.

But ultimately I did think this was an incredibly strong debut (!!) novel. Johnson’s prose was incredible, and the amount of thematic depth here really took me by surprise. Johnson provides us with a thorough meditation on fate, agency, breaking and mending familial ties, the role of language in shaping us. I really loved this.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman

discussion: Retellings, Canon, & Fanfiction

This post is inspired by a brief series of tweets that I wrote earlier, followed by an interesting conversation with a friend that got me thinking about this even more critically… I’ll start with my tweets, which are as follows:

I get unreasonably annoyed when people refer to mythological retellings as fanfiction. There is no hard and fast canon for mythology – that’s the point. Even Sophocles and Euripides told the same stories in different ways.

Mythology belongs to everyone. We have fragments of stories and glimpses of these characters from 3000 years ago and we all draw different conclusions. That’s the magic of it. Every interpretation is valid.

Side note – I am not bashing fanfiction! I love fanfiction. But in reviews of contemporary mythological stories, it’s used as a pejorative to try to undermine legitimacy. What exactly makes something a valid contribution to a canon which isn’t fixed to begin with?

I also think there’s probably something gendered in this….. you see the fanfiction criticism leveled against Christa Wolf and Madeline Miller much more often than Robert Graves or Colm Toibin.

Anyway, as I said, I then got talking to a friend who admitted that she’s referred to things like Paradise Lost as fanfiction, not to discredit the legitimacy of Paradise Lost, but to uplift fanfiction, which we both agree is a perfectly valid form of storytelling. We realized we were coming at the exact same conclusion from two different vantage points – I was saying ‘none of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid’ and she was saying ‘all of it is fanfiction; it’s all valid.’

Where do you guys fall on that? In general do you think published retellings should be considered fanfiction?

Anyway, what adds a level of complication to this when you’re talking about mythology is that mythological canon itself can be so hard to pin down. What do we consider ‘canon’ in Greek mythology? The Iliad, certainly, even if that story was around before Homer. What about the Aeneid? Even though it was written 900 years after the Iliad and uses many of its same characters? What about Dante’s Divina Commedia – do we accept that Odysseus/Ulysses burning in hell for his trickery is the definitive conclusion of this character’s narrative?

Fast forward several thousand years – let’s look at something like The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, or Medea by Christa Wolf, or Bright Air Black by David Vann. None of these novels are ‘retellings’ in the sense that they, for example, take the story of Achilles and set it on the moon.  They’re all set in the same time period as the original stories, and they attempt to expand on the characterizations that we’re familiar with.  Do we classify any/all of their interpretations as fanfiction? Or do we embrace them all into an ever-expanding concept of mythological canon, even if Medea and Bright Air Black contain contradictory interpretations of Medea’s character?

And finally, what do you think of the gender argument – do you think the fanfiction criticism is more often leveled against female writers (whether consciously or not) in an effort to undermine their credibility?

Sorry, I know I’ve asked a lot of disjointed questions here… I just thought this was some pretty interesting food for thought. Do you guys have any thoughts on this? Let’s discuss!

book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

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CIRCE by Madeline Miller
★★★☆☆
Little Brown and Co, April 10, 2018

Like so many other readers, I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s debut The Song of Achilles. I wouldn’t call it a flawless piece of literature or even a flawless Iliad adaptation, but it utterly consumed me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks, and I have no hesitations when I say that it’s one of my favorite books. My feelings about Circe are much more complicated.

In many ways, you could argue that it surpasses The Song of Achilles from an objective standpoint. The scope of Circe is much larger, and Miller crafts an absolutely stunning arc for her titular character. I put Circe down feeling so satisfied with the conclusion that I wanted to give it 5 stars solely for that mastery… but clearly I did not end up doing that, so let’s back up.

My first issue with Circe was the unnecessarily languid pace. For one thing, there is no reason this book needs to be nearly 400 pages. There is just not that much going on. And for another thing, so many of the subplots in this novel happen offstage, so to speak. In case you aren’t familiar with the original story: Circe is exiled to the island Aiaia and unable to leave. Consequently, a lot of background information is obtained secondhand, from other characters visiting the island and relaying information to Circe. It doesn’t exactly make for the most thrilling narrative.

This ties into that, but due to Circe’s immortality, the stakes in this novel are constantly low. Any altercations that could theoretically result in Circe being killed or injured have absolutely no tension, because you know it’s all going to be okay (physically, at least, if not emotionally). Circe’s immortality is approached beautifully on a thematic level, but not necessarily on a narrative one.

Now let’s talk about Circe herself. This is something I’m sort of conflicted about. Circe is one of those characters from Greek mythology who doesn’t have her own literature, but she features into the background of so many different stories (the Odyssey, notably, but also Theogony, the now lost Telegony, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to name a few). Though none of these stories explore Circe’s life in the way that Miller has endeavored to do, we do get a sense of who she is – a ruthless witch who dwells in solitude and turns men into pigs for sport. That… is not the Circe that Miller gives us. Hers is soft, tame, misunderstood – and the thing is, none of it blatantly contradicts anything from mythological canon. Circe in this novel does turn men into pigs – and Miller shows how she gets there. But at times I still felt like I was reading about an original character, and not Circe. I mean, it all turned out okay. Like I said, the arc that Miller wrote was brilliant. It just took some time to adjust my expectations of how I thought this character was going to be portrayed. (Also, this is only sort of related, but another point of confusion for me were some of the myths that Miller decided to incorporate into Circe’s narrative… though some of her invented stories fit very well. It was sort of a mixed bag for me.)

I know this has been largely critical, but I did like this. It was super readable, I thought the background characters were fascinating (Pasiphaë in particular was really excellent), and I adored the ending. And, as always, I love Greek mythology. I’d rather read Greek mythology retellings than almost anything else. I loved diving back into this world, especially so soon after re-reading the Odyssey. But, I’ve said this before: I tend to be critical of the things I love the most. This is a solid book that many fans are going to love just as much, if not more, than The Song of Achilles. I’ll be very curious to hear what everyone else thinks.

Anyway, this is a very solid 3.5 – I’m rounding down for now solely because I seem to have written a 3-star review instead of a 4-star one, but I may revisit my rating after I’ve thought about this some more.

Thank you so much to Little, Brown and Co and Madeline Miller for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

top 5 tuesday: Favorite Retellings

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

AUGUST 22 – Top 5 Retellings

To absolutely no one’s surprise, I am a little obsessed with Greek mythology, and so to absolutely no one’s surprise, I am cheating big time with this prompt.  I tried to narrow it down to five and failed spectacularly.

Bright Air Black by David Vann
The original: Medea by Euripides & The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes

Bright Air Black is one of the most stunning books I’ve ever read.  The prose is gorgeous and lyrical, and the characterization of Medea is everything I could have asked for.  Vann renders her as a sympathetic figure without losing any of the ferocity that makes her such a fascinating and iconic figure.  Because this novel is so character driven, I’d recommend familiarizing yourself with the story of Medea before reading it, probably through reading the Euripides play, though the Apollonius of Rhodes story also factors heavily into Vann’s narrative.

Lavinia by Ursula LeGuin
The original: The Aeneid by Vergil

I’ve read The Aeneid about a hundred times, and I have to admit, that probably clouded my judgment of Lavinia just a little bit – I don’t personally love this quite as much as the others on this list.  But it felt unfair to omit it.  It’s a beautifully written book that tells the story from the point of view of Aeneas’s wife, in a way that’s both inventive and also incredibly faithful to the original.  I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to have read The Aeneid before reading Lavinia – in fact, reading Lavinia first might be a better way to approach the story.

Alcestis by Katherine Beutner
The original: Alcestis by Euripides

The play by Euripides is one of the only remaining Greek ‘tragicomedies’ that we have access to (though scholars still argue about how exactly to classify it).  It’s undoubtedly tragic and comedic at the same time.  Basically, the story is that king Admetus had been promised by Apollo that he could cheat death, as long as when the day of his death came, someone would agree to die in his place.  That person ended up being Admetus’s wife, Alcestis, who ends up going to the underworld before being eventually retrieved by Herakles.  In Beutner’s retelling, when Alcestis dies, she falls in love with the queen of the underworld, Persephone.  This isn’t a flawless book, but the prose is lovely and evocative, and I loved the lesbian twist to the story.  All things considered, I really enjoyed reading this.  It’s certainly not necessary to have read the Euripides play before reading this novel, though with its short length I’d recommend going for it.

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
The original: Herakles & Geryon from The Geryoneis by Stesichorus

Autobiography of Red isn’t an autobiography at all, but a retelling of this rather obscure Stesichorus poem.  This is a ‘novel in verse,’ so basically a lengthy poem about the life of Geryon, the monster who in Carson’s story is actually the protagonist.  There’s also a gay twist here where Geryon is in love with Herakles.  This book is absolutely striking and unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Anne Carson is a goddess.  It’s absolutely not necessary to read the Stesichorus before reading this book – there’s an introduction that explains away any questions you might have.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare // Ransom by David Malouf // The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The original: The Iliad by Homer

Retellings of The Iliad are my raison d’être, so I couldn’t choose just one.  Each of these retellings is completely unique and brings something different to the story.

An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare: This is a play which spins The Iliad in a firmly anti-war direction.  This play is a one-man show, where the main character, ‘The Poet,’ recounts the story of The Iliad, focusing on the conflict between Achilles and Hector.  In this interpretation, the Poet is forced to recount the same story again and again until there is no more war.  It’s an incredibly hard-hitting interpretation of the story.  I would love to see a live performance of this, but even reading the script was very entertaining.

Ransom by David Malouf: This short little book is a beautifully written retelling of books XXII – XIV of The Iliad, where the Trojan king Priam crosses battle lines to ransom the body of his son Hector from Achilles, who had murdered Hector and has been publicly desecrating his body.  Malouf’s prose is vibrant and lyrical, and his characterization is stunning.  This is a must-read for all Iliad fans.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: Probably the most famous Iliad retelling, The Song of Achilles tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, which Miller depicts as an explicitly romantic relationship.  This book is gorgeous and devastating and while not 100% faithful to The Iliad, Miller pays homage to it in a satisfying way.  I love this book a lot.

BONUS: One more!  I had to include this non-mythological retelling:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The original: Cain and Abel from the Bible

East of Eden is one of the most beautiful family sagas I’ve ever read.  It tells the story of two families in Salinas Valley California, the Hamiltons and the Trasks, whose two family stories come to mirror the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel.  You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this book – even without the biblical undertones, this book is striking.

So those are my top five eight retellings – what are some of your favorites?  And what do you think of my choices?  Comment and let me know!