Ariadne | Jennifer Saint #Mythology

Let me tell you the story of a righteous man.

First up, what a cover! Isn’t it beautiful?

My copy of Ariadne is an early proof copy. I’ve tried to take a photo of it that does it justice, but I failed. So let me describe it – it includes the gold leaf tendrils of the finished copy, though less intricately detailed and in the centre of the cover is a golden maze with a trireme in the middle of the maze. Given Ariadne’s links to the Minotaur’s labyrinth underneath the Palace of Knossos in Crete, her escape via Greek boat and her eventual marriage to Dionysus (the Greek god of wine and other things), it’s a perfect match.

We can thank Micaela Alcaino for the design and illustration (she also designed the gorgeous cover for Bridget Collins’ The Binding and more recently our own Karen Brooks’ The Good Wife of Bath) and Siobhan Hooper for art direction. They have done a stirling job.

I had hoped to enjoy the story a little more though.

The feminist retelling of Ancient myths and legends is one I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with. Done well, it is enlightening, confronting and thought-provoking. Done poorly, it is, well, dull.

Ariadne is not totally dull, but it is a very straight-forward retelling of the stories surrounding Ariadne, her sister Phaedra, their brother the Minotaur, King Minos, Queen Pasiphaë, Daedalus, Theseus, Dionysus and Hippolytus. The only difference with this retelling, from the old stories, is it being told through the eyes of two women, two sisters, Ariadne and Phaedra.

The thing I loved about Madeline Miller’s Circe and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, was seeing a well-known ancient tale retold from a woman’s perspective. It wasn’t the same old story simply told through female eyes. Both Miller and Atwood challenged us to to reinterpret the legends, to see through the bullshit, to bring the story back to a semblance of reality.

For me, that’s what Ariadne lacked. Not enough challenging, not enough reinterpreting, not enough points of difference.

What I did not know was that I had hit upon a truth of womanhood: however blameless a life we led, the passions and the greed of men could bring us to ruin, and there was nothing we could do.

In Saint’s version the women could not change or influence their fates, there was nothing they could do. All we learnt was how it felt to be a woman in this time, with no agency, no power and no voice.

Another bug bear was how often Saint used her other characters to retell their own story, or the story of another immortal. Stories that I already knew, stories straight from the archives. The effect was rather like a frame story in the end, with a number of loosely connected stories being told around a mythological campfire.

If this was your first time with a retelling of an Ancient Greek myth, then I’m sure this would be a good place to start. It was easy and undemanding, and has had some rave reviews by other readers on Goodreads. If you’re wondering why I persisted with a story that wasn’t really rocking my world, then book group is your answer.

However the Kirkus Review summed up my feelings exactly, ‘ambitious but uninspiring‘.

Epigraph:

‘You will stand before the crowds reciting the glorious death of the man-bull in those great winding passages cut from the rock. Be sure, then, that you include me.’

Ariadne’s letter to Theseus, Ovid’s Heroides, translator Harold Isbell, 1990

This is the one part of the book that has got me very excited though.

The Heroides or The Heroines is a collection of epistolary poems written from the point of view of 15 aggrieved heroines of Greek and Roman mythology, most likely composed by Ovid. The letters include one from Penelope to Odysseus, Briseis to Achilles, Phaedra to Theseus, Dido to Aeneas, Medea to Jason and Sappho to Phaon to name a few.

I am now in the process of hunting down a copy for myself…oh, how I wish I could use my day off work tomorrow to trawl some second hand bookshops! The trouble, as always, is working out which translation I would best prefer. And lockdown.

Below are two more translations of the same section from Ariadne’s letter.

You’ll be carried to Athens, and be received by your homeland,
where you’ll stand in the high fortress of your city,
and speak cleverly of the death of man and bull,
and the labyrinth’s winding paths cut from the rock:
speak of me also, abandoned in a lonely land:
I’m not to be dropped, secretly, from your list.
Translator: A.S. Kline 2001

You will go to the haven of Cecrops; but when you have been received back home, and have stood in pride before your thronging followers, gloriously telling the death of the man-and-bull, and of the halls of rock cut out in winding ways, tell, too, of me, abandoned on a solitary shore – for I must not be stolen from the record of your honours!

Translator: Grant Showerman 1914
Title: Ariadne
Author: Jennifer Saint
ISBN: 9781472273871
Imprint: Wildfire
Published: 30 March 2021
Format: Trade Paperback
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin.

8 thoughts on “Ariadne | Jennifer Saint #Mythology

  1. I very much appreciated your great discussion concerning re-tellings/reinterpretations that you think are worthwhile, as opposed to those you don’t. I studied classics a bit in college and still very much enjoy seeing evidence that the myths still have things to offer modern readers. I am, howevere, becoming satiated with the current crop.
    I also enjoyed your review on another level, as I’ve seriously considered reading Ariadne (I even read a sample page or two standing in a bookstore) but have hesitated, pretty much for the reasons you give for not enjoying the book very much. I totally agree with you, however, that the cover is lovely!
    Even though there are big chunks of his work I haven’t read (I really must check out The Heriodes), I love Ovid. I’ve primarily read The Metamorphoses; it’s really great despite some big dull chunks here and there. If you haven’t already read it, the Stanley Lombard translation is really good, very lively and colorful; it has great notes and a really good introductory essay (we used this in a class I audited a few years ago). Even better IMO particularly if you know the basic myths, is Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake Siren: Ovid Resung, which is a reimaging of several of Ovid’s myths from the point of view of the female character. MacLaughlin writes in a type of prose/poetry, with short sections for each myth. The language is modern, the settings are sometimes modern as well but both are mechanisms MacLaughlin uses to make the reader understand that issues involving violence and misuse of women are still alive today. I loved it (and it has a great cover). In case you want to check it out: https://electricliterature.com/wake-siren-ovid-resung-reclaims-the-voices-of-the-women-from-myth/
    Oh — I do hope you were able to find some time to browse in the bookstores. I really miss a couple of great used stores I used to visit, unavailable to me since my move!

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    1. Thank you for such a thoughtful reply Janakay. Goodreads had oodles of rave reviews for this book (and only a few thumbs down) so I am in the minority.
      Sue @Whispering Gums recently wrote a post about memoir that also applies to historical fiction that said it, “is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past.” I want historical fiction to continue a conversation or a dialogue with the past. I want a new light to be shone on an old story. This book, for me, felt like more of the same. But obviously lots of people love retellings of the old myths and legends that stick to the script.

      I’m woefully untutored on Ovid. I’ve only dabbled so far. Something I hope to rectify soon.

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  2. Too bad it wasn’t better–it’s the sort of thing I would be inclined to hunt up myself.

    The Heroides is pretty great.

    One book I quite liked in the genre was Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

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  3. I am sorry this book did not work for you! Retelling can be tricky & I have read many of them on Indian Mythology lately! I cannot seem to develop a warm feeling for them; even Circe which I know everyone including you & my sister have high praise , I have attempted & attempted but cannot get on! I agree with you that there is a need to retell these stories away from the traditional nonsense, I just can’t find one that works for me. P.S. there is a whole lot of truth in not judging a book by it’s cover; The Binding had the loveliest of cover but I could not abide by the novel!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This made me smile – I also had trouble with The Binding beyond it’s lovely cover.
      We read Circe for my book group last year, & only 3 of us raved/loved it, the rest were ‘meh’, so once again I’m in the minority!

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