Clythemnestra helplessly watches her eldest daughter Iphigenia being sacrificed by her husband Agamemnon in return for a fair wind to start a war against Troy. The war that launched a thousand ships to get her sister Helen back for her brother-in-law Menelaus. Clythemnestra’s youngest daughter Elektra waits for ten years for her beloved father’s return while her mother is consumed by revenge, together with her lover Aegisthus. Meanwhile in Troy, no one believes the words of Princess Cassandra who sees her city going down in flames in one of her visions, gifted by Apollo.
This is the first book I’ve read by Saint and it was a very nice introduction to her work. In recent years, I have read several books about the Trojan War and/or the House of Atreus so the events are anything but new to me. Some of these books are ‘House of names’, ‘The silence of the girls’, ‘Daughters of Sparta‘, ‘A thousand ships‘, ‘A song for Achilles’… I feel that Saint stays close to the classical interpretation of the Iliad. She includes three female perspectives: that of Clythemnestra, Cassandra and of course Elektra who gives this book its name.
Compared to some of the raw and bloody scenes found in ‘House of names’ or ‘Silence of the girls’, Saint certainly doesn’t shy away from drama, but focuses more on character development. The parallels between Clythemnestra and Elektra are particularly strong. They both seek revenge and as a result can no longer see things clearly. This Clythemnestra feels real. Although the one in Toibin’s work remains the most ruthless. Elektra is not my favourite character from this well-known story and I have some trouble understanding the reasons behind her actions. But I liked the inclusion of her life in this book. Her story becomes more prominent in the second half of the book and I’m glad we still follow her after her father’s return from Troy.
Cassandra is definitely a nice addition to include a Trojan perspective and you really sympathize with her. The fall of Troy remains so dramatic. My favourite scene was one between Cassandra and Hector on the eve of his death. I found it only a bit strange that Cassandra’s twin brother Helenus is omitted from the story. I also liked her ‘friendship’ with Helen, in times when no one believes her.
This brings me to Helen. Although Saint had the disadvantage that the Trojan War is a bit of a been there, done that for me, I really want to congratulate her on how she portrayed Helen. Although she’s only a side character, it’s the first time that Helen is represented as I can imagine her. I normally hate Helen. But in ‘Elektra‘ she’s human, vain and not unfathomably handsome. She chooses Menelaus as a husband because he’s different from the other men. And her relationship with Paris and the royal family in Troy is not perfect. This is a Helen who bears her destiny while still standing above the rest because she’s the daughter of Zeus and thus a plaything of the Gods.
I’m now very curious to read ‘Ariadne’ because I think discovering more unfamiliar events from Greek mythology will make me appreciate Saint’s writing style even more.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.
Have you read anything by Jennifer Saint yet? Who’s your favourite character from the Iliad?