Like any good Greek tragedy, Jennifer Saint’s latest mythological retelling is exactly that—tragic. But it is tragic in the best way possible. Elektra reanimates the ancient tale of the Trojan War with new perspectives, zeroing in on the experiences of three female characters with elegance and emotional intensity. And for a story that is predominantly about waiting—for husbands to return from war, for brothers to grow up, for men to come to their senses (spoiler: that never happens)—I turned the pages awfully quickly.
Throughout the novel, we follow three women: Elektra, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, yearning for her father’s return from war; Clytemnestra, struggling with her Agamemnon’s moral character and its meaning; and Cassandra, a Trojan princess and sister of the man who begins the ten-year Trojan War, beset with prescient visions that discredit her beyond all reputability. The twists and turns of the plot itself are not so shocking—we are, after all, reading a story thousands of years old—but the vividness of each woman’s thoughts and emotions create a most compelling narrative. I have struggled with split-perspective narratives in the past because it often seems like an author’s writing style permeates every aspect of each character, making characters’ voices difficult to differentiate from the writer’s own. But in Elektra, this is far from the case. Despite the fact that all three women are stuck in relatively similar situations (waiting for the return of their husbands and fathers from the Trojan War), their experiences are wonderfully differentiated through their attitudes and emotions toward the world around them. From Elektra, we feel the loneliness and yearning of a young girl abandoned, emotionally and literally, by her parents; from Clytemnestra, we feel angry weariness, cold and calculating, as she waits for Agamemnon to return; from Cassandra, we feel the anguish of head-splitting visions sent by Apollo that are believed by no one. There is no mistaking which remarkable woman is which.
What these women have in common, despite their well-distinguished perspectives, is anger, and through them we see three different ways in which this emotion is processed. Cassandra inflects her anger inward; she carries the injustice that Apollo put upon her as a kind of self-deserving punishment, which is perhaps the only actually crazy thing about her; the visions that leave her writhing on the ground are clearly meant as Apollo’s revenge (for something that I shouldn’t like to spoil), but they are also a marker of how she refuses to forgive herself. For what, exactly, is not clear, but the anger she bears will eventually lead her to beg for her own death in Clytemnestra’s arms. Cassandra has just cause to be enraged: no one listens to her ever-accurate prophecies, her family and city have discredited her as an insane liar, her brother has caused a ten-year war over a woman and destroyed her family—but all of this she keeps within herself, suffering silently.
Elektra and Clytemnestra deal with parallel courses of anger. As much as Elektra despises her mother, the two are remarkably similar. Both await Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan War, although for entirely different reasons: Clytemnestra wishes revenge upon her bloodthirsty husband while Elektra wants her gracious and loving father back. Clytemnestra’s anger at Agamemnon and grief for her lost child hollow her out, ruining her relationship with her living children. She waits ten long years for her husband’s return, and her revenge goes perfectly; the emptiness she feels alongside her success is, however, unplanned for. Her revenge was insufficient to soothe ten years of anger, and she dies still mourning her daughter.
In turn, Elektra, too, waits a long and painful period for Orestes, her brother, to return and enact revenge upon Clytemnestra. Like Clytemnestra, her anger and grief are singular, driving forces that drown out the rest of her life. She shirks love, comfort, and a relationship with her family to accomplish her goal; the end result is successful, in a sense, but costs her everything, including her own happiness. We both begin and end with Elektra, the novel’s namesake; a young, bright girl in the beginning and a sad, lost woman by the end. Her anger animates her for much of her adult life, giving her the bravery and determination to send away her brother and endure poverty for many years. She feels her place acutely, a young princess trapped and powerless within the walls of Mycenae. Nevertheless, she overpowers this helplessness thanks to her driving determination. But she is also victim to her anger. Her youth is lost to a singular burning desire to avenge her father’s death, and although she is the only one of the three central characters to survive, she ends the novel more of a cautionary tale than a victor, a warning for those that might lose themselves to hatred and revenge. Her story and the frenzied madness of the Trojan War itself have much in common.
And all of this is very sad, and of course, very tragic. But I also like it a lot, because we see the power of these women’s anger made central to the enormity of the Trojan War. Paris, Priam, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Hector, Achilles— they’re all there, but they’re just not as important. Their battlefield betrayals and agonies do not hold the same significance as events like Helen abandoning her daughter, or Cassandra roaming the streets of Troy at night, or Elektra returning to her father’s tomb every morning with fresh offerings. Made large, these small moments reveal that they are not small at all—they’re just framed as such, lost in the gargantuan pages of The Iliad and countless other retellings that choose to frame things differently.
Elektra is a worthwhile read for many reasons. On top of the outpouring of female anger that made the story so compelling to me, there are also incredibly graphic descriptions of death that would do The Iliad proud. This is not just a book about women’s feelings, it’s also about what they do with those feelings, and the results are not pretty. With Saint’s small creative liberties and incredibly engaging style, furthermore, there’s not much to dislike about this classic tale made very much fresh. Style, narration, plot, and characterization are effortlessly woven to portray the lives of Elektra, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra, and I felt for these women not as the untouchable marble statues of Greek mythology that they are often cast as, but as the bleeding, mourning human beings that stumble their way through the bitter tragedies of war and loss.