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Elektra by Jennifer Saint

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The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods.

Clytemnestra

The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon – her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them, and determines to win, whatever the cost.

Cassandra

Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall.

Elektra

The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But, can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence?

In July of 2021, I reviewed Jennifer Saint’s first mythologically focused novel, Ariadne for my podcast, and though this genre remains one of my favourites the book was not what I had expected.

I gave the book 2 stars on Goodreads and though that feels a little mean, I am going to stick by that because of issues I personally had with the story. That being said, I know that a lot of people loved it so I will post the link to my review below and let you make your own minds up.

For anyone who isn’t quite sure who Elektra is; she is the youngest child of King Agamemnon of Mycenae and his wife Clytemnestra.

Need a bit more? Clytemnestra was the sister of Helen of Troy – the face that launched a thousand ships.

So, this book is based before, during and after the sacking of Troy. 

Troy is where my love of all things Greek mythology started. When I was 9 years old we did a play called Troy at my primary school. I was given the role (quite suitable now I think about it more) of Cassandra, the fortune-teller and daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.

In this play, I had to act crazy and say insane things about how my newly returned brother Paris – played by James Tedeschi – was going to cause the destruction of the town. Pretty, blonde Jodie Olliver played the beautiful Helen and we did indeed see destruction.

This book delves into the emotions of the women who are victims of the war. At one point, it highlights that Helen running away with Paris is only an excuse for the power-hungry brothers to destroy a powerful city that could have been competition for their own heritage in Mycenae.

As a child, I didn’t really delve into the so-called behind-the-scenes information, but this book really digs deep, looking at the horrific history behind the myth, especially where the two brothers, Agamemnon and Menelaus are concerned. And it is indeed barbaric. As always we have stories of incestuous and abusive relationships, but we also have fratricide, patricide and cannibalism. Yes, we run the full gamut here!

Though the novel is titled Elektra, part of me thinks this is something of an identity crisis.

Do we get Elektra’s tale woven into the book? Yes, we definitely do.

Is she the central character? Not really, no.

Being honest, as I read the book, all I could think was that this is more the story of Clytemnestra, her descent into the pits of despair and everything that aided in that journey.

I am going to take a guess here and say that many of you have seen the 2004 film Troy starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. That film expanded on the tale of the battle and did not focus so much on the aftermath, or the actions that led up to it – in fact, the people who suffered the most in this are not even in the cast.

When I say that I am referring to people on both sides of the war, those left in Mycenae to await the return of their sons and husbands, and the women in Troy who were witness to the destruction that took place.

In this book, we were introduced, in more detail to the stories of Clytemnestra, the Queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon’s wife, and Helen’s sister. As well as the experiences of Cassandra, a woman cursed by Apollo with the gift of sight but the curse of never being believed. And, of course, Elektra.

As I have already mentioned, this book felt more like it should have been called Clytemnestra, but a part of me wonders if, because she is less well known and her name sounds a little like an STI, it was felt Elektra was more punchy?

Anyway, whatever the reason, that is the title of the book.

When I started reading I was immediately enamoured with the voice of Clytemnestra, and to a degree the voice of Cassandra. At one point I was even moved to almost tears when reading about her disillusion with her new husband.

One big thing that this book has in common with the vast majority of Greek and Roman myth is that the passage of time means nothing.

In this book, 10 years pass in mere chapters and there is the assumption that you know it has passed.

Though it is the story of Elektra, it is also the tale of a mother’s grief. And to explain that I am going to go all ‘Classics student’ on you for a few moments. Just know that this isn’t spoilers for this book, it is a retelling of moments that happen before the start of the Trojan War, and most certainly moments that were left out of the film that seemed to focus more on Brad Pitt’s abs than anything else!

I am not going to go into the heritage of Menelaus and Agamemnon in great detail because it’s both incredibly complicated and quite grotesque, but I will say that they came from a very violent bloodline and after the wedding of Helen to Menelaus but prior to Agamemnon and Clytemnestra pledging their troth, the two brothers return to Mycenae with a warrior army from Sparta to oust their uncle Thyestes from the throne. And here I don’t mean ‘Uncle leave or we will kill you’ I mean ‘Here uncle I am going to plunge my sword into you and you are now dead’

In a show of apparent kindness, they let his young son, Aegisthus live, a point that Agamemnon even brags about in the book to his new wife, claiming he did this for her.

However, it’s soon obvious that he regrets the decision, but just 15 years after taking the throne of Mycenae, and 3 daughters, Iphigenia, Chrysothemis and Elektra, he is asked by his brother Menelaus to go to war.

Now, this is the important bit that truly sets the motives in this book into action.

With the armies of Mycenae and Sparta behind them, they are sure they’re going to win, but then disaster strikes and a sacred white deer is slain.

Clytemnestra is asked to bring their oldest daughter, Iphigenia to Auris where she is to wed Achilles in exchange for his participation in the war. However, it’s a ruse. As a horrified, and incredibly pregnant, Clytemnestra watches, her oldest daughter’s throat is slit by her husband as a sacrifice to Artemis.

Without explanation or excuse, her husband leaves her there to mourn the senseless death of her child.

Reading this moment explained in Clytemnestra’s voice, her horror, her pain truly choked me up. And when a book achieves this I know I am reading the right thing.

“A long time later, I would hear the bards sing of my daughter’s death, along with all the other stories they told of Troy. Often they would say that at the very moment Agamemnon raised the knife, Artemis took pity on Iphigenia and swapped her for a deer. In this version of the story, my daughter lives on as a priestess and favourite of the goddess on an island somewhere. Crucially, in this telling, Agamemnon did nothing more than slaughter a simple animal. It’s poetic and pretty, and so very clean. […]

“But I saw her body convulse in her father’s arms as he drew that blade across her throat. I held her, warm and bleeding and dead on the beach…”

This book is adding more life to the characters who, in the tales of Homer, Sophocles and Aeschylus (Eeskulus) were footnotes in the tales of the so-called great men who fought wars, killed innocents and invaded countries to win crowns of greatness.

The story of Elektra is one that for me, at least, felt somewhat glossed over in the book. We get a great deal of detail from Clytemnestra and Cassandra. Both are on opposite sides yet both experiencing similar concerns.

Clytemnestra is worried for her family. She is concerned that should her husband suffer another disaster she will lose another daughter, she will be forced to witness the sacrifice of another child she has carried and borne. She does not want to go through that again and any mother will be able to identify with that fear. At the moment she saw Iphigenia murdered at the hand of her father, without emotion or regret, she started to doubt that he had ever been the man she wanted and believed him to be. Where once, for a moment, he had shown mercy, when it came to the life of a child he had helped to create there was none.

Yes, this is the moment where tears welled up.

So, we have Clytemnestra in Mycenae, angry with her heartless husband, furious with her senseless sister and terrified for her remaining two daughters. What’s a woman to do in those circumstances?

Meanwhile, in Troy, we have Cassandra, daughter of the King, trying to get her family and people to listen to her, all the while knowing that all they see is an insane woman who never talks sense. 

The thing that always baffled me about Cassandra was the fact that she would tell them what was about to happen, what was in the visions that she had seen, and even after they happened they still treated her as though she was simply mad.

Cassandra’s story, is, for me, in some ways similar to the tale of Medusa, I have a book about her that I am going to review at some point over the next six months, so we’ll get into the tale of the Gorgons then. However, the stories feel similar because this ability and curse that she has is all because she dared to say one thing “No!”.

That’s right. Cassandra, as a young woman, dedicated her life to being a virgin priestess of the Sun God Apollo. One day, when she was in his temple, tending his statue, he appeared to her and gave her the gift of sight, the ability to see visions of the future. Great, right? Of course, who wouldn’t want to have this power (well, I wouldn’t, but that’s because I always see the worst possible stuff and who wants to know when they’re going to die anyway?). 

But this gift has a price and it’s one that Cassandra is not willing to pay, for to do so will not only change her life, but destroy what she’s built for herself. She has always felt like an outcast, and being honest here, in every single version of Cassandra’s tale her mother is an absolute mare to her, and in Elektra that is still the case.

Apollo wants Cassandra to sacrifice her virginity for the present he has given her, but she knows that all his priestesses must be pure and even if she tells her sisters that it was the god Apollo she lay with, she would still be thrown out on her ear without a reference!

Apollo isn’t used to being told no, there are swathes of tales about him and his dislike of the word and the stunning Apollo and Daphne by Bernini tells of another instance where the woman suffers to distance herself from his advances. So, as punishment, he ensures she still has the gift, but curses her, ensuring that no matter what she tells people it will never be believed. So she is destined to see the paths of destruction that are wending their way to her home but no matter what she says, they will ignore it and she will have to endure.

So, here’s the thing and it’s why I keep on saying that this book is more the stories of Cassandra and Clytemnestra than anything else. Elektra is a baby at the beginning of the book and any true acts of awareness aren’t witnessed until 62% of the way through. She is a child with childish observations, she barely understands what her mother is telling her when her father leaves for war, and she is fed the stories that she wants to hear about his power, his kindness, his strength as a king from the servants and a young farmhand called Giorgio.

I could easily tell you everything that happens in the book, because the myths around the Trojan war are not unknown, but as with all myths, whether they’re Greek, Roman, Hindu, Native American or from the Maori, have different interpretations, and this book is no different. 

Saint took a specific branch of the myth and ran with it, and did so well. Though I guess I am biased as she does gift certain characters with the ending I prefer – which is always good!

I have to say that this is a book that I enjoyed, but perhaps that’s partly because I am comparing it with the book I was struggling to read right before I picked it up, or perhaps because I am comparing it to the previous book by Saint which I really didn’t enjoy.

All of that said, as someone in a previous review mentioned, I feel as though the book was mistitled. Elektra was not a character I felt any empathy for. She was self-serving, ignorant and oblivious to everything but what she considered to be her own pain. She was as much a tool of her father’s disgusting behaviour as he was and I simply didn’t like her. I am not sure if this was the intention of the author, but I felt as though she was, again as has been said before, a plot device. Her fate was incredibly ambiguous. 

However, where I think that Saint got things so right was with her interpretations of a mourning mother in Clytemnestra and the frustrated and tormented Cassandra. Both characters inspired empathy in me and, this is exactly what I needed to continue reading the book.

Pros

  • Build characters that had previously been footnotes in the retellings
  • Created empathy for the characters

Cons

  • Think that it was badly mistitled which leads to a misconception of what the book is about
4-star rating

Listen to the review now

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