Book Review – Elektra by Jennifer Saint

Pages: 331
Published: 26th April 2022
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Trigger warnings: Child death, animal sacrifice, violence/injury detail

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.

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.

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.

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?

This book brings together three immensely powerful female perspectives to create a classical retelling that carries enormous depth and explores wide-ranging themes. Written with the utmost elegance and delivering seamless characterisation, the contrast of emotions portrayed throughout its beguiling narrative make it a wholly immersive read from start to finish.

The story of the Trojan War is one that has been told time and again, but this shows that there are still extraordinary tales within it that still need bringing to the surface. Here, the events that happen on the battlefield take a welcome backseat in favour of three significant women whose names are very familiar but have received much less coverage than their male counterparts. All of them are brought to life with immeasurable complexity and one, maybe two of them can be described as morally grey.

Trojan princess Cassandra has always coveted the power of being able to see into the future, and in order to be granted that wish she devotes her life to the service of Apollo. However, when the god finally appears before her and she refuses to submit to his will, he retaliates by inflicting a curse that allows her to look into the future, but nobody will ever believe her words. Therefore, when Cassandra forecasts the downfall of Troy, she is viewed as insane.

Clytemnestra is the queen of Mycenae and after the war is prompted by the kidnap of her sister Helen, she watches on as her husband Agamemnon leaves to command the Greeks. Before they set off, Agamemnon commits a shocking sacrifice to gain the favour of the gods, and in the years that follow a grief stricken Clytemnestra is hell-bent on carrying out the ultimate revenge.

Her youngest daughter is Elektra, who worships her father and is keenly awaiting his victorious return. As Clytemnestra becomes more distant and scheming, Elektra develops a burning hatred of her mother and attempts to defy her at every opportunity, determined to escape the unending cycle of violence that has beset Mycenae for many years until eventually being forced to confront it.

The plot of course follows the classic literature, but it is where the narrative is focused that sets it apart. We live inside the minds of the three main characters, who all possess a different kind of strength, and experiencing the story through their eyes is extremely compelling – in particular the increasingly tense dynamic between Clytemnestra and Elektra.

Events such as Iphigenia’s fate and Cassandra’s cursed existence are approached in a completely new light, and it was fascinating to see how these defining moments shaped what was to come and owed so much to the hidden presence of the gods. There is vengefulness absolutely everywhere you look and the challenges faced by each protagonist keep things intense. The only problem is that the pacing does get rather slow on occasion.

Although Elektra is the title character, she is not the main narrator, as equal amounts of the book are told from the perspectives of Clytemnestra and Cassandra. All of them are written in the first person and they compliment each other well, with each of their storylines richly developed, having a meticulous attention to detail and an emotional weight.

The change in Clytemnestra is noticeable from the moment she meets Agamemnon at the start to when she suffers a devastating loss at his hands, as retribution becomes her obsession. The fact that Elektra sees things from the opposing view and regards her mother with open resentment is an intriguing setup and creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Although Elektra is the more likeable, both points of view evoke sympathy in some ways.

It is through Clytemnestra that we see Agamemnon, who is steely and quite reserved when first introduced before turning ruthless and power-hungry, while Elektra can only see him in a positive light. Aegisthus is a slippery character and his arrival further complicates matters, with Elektra falling deeper into isolation aside from her affecting relationship with Georgios.

Cassandra is one of the most tragic characters in Greek myth and as well as representing a shift in focus from the other two protagonists, her portrayal is refreshingly authentic. Whereas she is often depicted as mad and not fully present, here she is given the human treatment she deserves and you are made to feel genuine sadness at her plight. It was nice to see the frequently maligned Helen come across as multi-dimensional, too.

The writing is sumptuously lyrical and descriptive in a way that extracts huge emotional depth, with some particularly meaningful lines that eloquently capture the wave of feelings each of the protagonists encounter along the way. It is elaborate and may make the story a little more dense, but most of the time you just cannot help getting swept away by it.

Overall, this is a seriously impressive retelling which brings new perspectives to the fore and revels in the intricate details of a mythology that rarely grows the least bit tiresome. Sometimes the pace could have been more brisk, but the delightful prose and the excellent insight into the minds of each character ensure that it is massively absorbing fare.

While not quite as phenomenal as Ariadne, this is another accomplished Greek mythology retelling from Jennifer Saint, who really does know the story and the characters so well. Her writing is stunning, and that only added to my enjoyment.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

11 thoughts on “Book Review – Elektra by Jennifer Saint

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