Thank you to Flatiron Books for re-inviting me to take place in a blog tour celebrating a triumphant new novel by Jennifer Saint!
“Can’t you see that it just goes on, over and over? The gods demand their justice, but we suffer for it, every time.”Jennifer Saint, Elektra
I took a class in college about ancient greek ritual and tradition. I learned a lot, but perhaps the most striking revelation, and the one that has stuck with me years later, has to do with the oral tradition of storytelling. “Homer” is a not necessarily a person but a perspective, collected overtime through repeated tellings of stories from what we know as the Odyssey and Iliad that were eventually codified into text. However, as my professor pointed out – who, throughout history, in nearly every Western culture, have been the ones doing the writing in the early stages of history? Men, of course. Who talked to other men, who collected stories from other men, who had the perspective on the story of – you guessed it – men. This is not to say that women weren’t telling their own versions of stories – they just weren’t the stories that were written down. Might this imply, argued my professor, the existence of a hitero unseen world of perspectives, ideas, and nuance to stories like the Iliad and Odyssey, which have simply been lost to time and telling?
Through Elektra, I like to think that Jennifer Saint has tapped into this period of hidden history and myth, elevating the voices of three of the women most maligned by the Iliad and Oresteia: Cassandra, Clytemnestra, and Elektra herself. Who are they, traditionally? A mad prophetess. A murderous wife. A disobedient daughter. Look closer, Saint whispers. See Cassandra, punished for declining to be assaulted by a God, doomed to literally be seen and never heard. See Clytemnestra, her daughter murdered before her eyes at her husband’s hand, seeking retribution. See Elektra, losing her family one by one, to pain, to loss, and to rage. Saint expertly contextualizes their experiences, not cleansing the narrative of violence but rather giving it purpose and direction. Iphigenia’s wedding and its aftermath is a great example of this, not only phenomenally written by hypnotizing in its dread, pain, and horror. Of all three characters, Clytemnestra’s choices as the narrative unwinds become more and more dubious, but always, always I was able to root her motivation in this pivotal moment.
This story is also heavily steeped in generational trauma, specifically that which is shared between women. Mother to daughter, sister to sister, enemy to enemy, friend to friend. Clytemnestra and Elektra are foils to each other lives, as the anger and anguish Clytemnestra carries shapes Elektra’s upbringing, which in turn shapes Elektra’s burning resentment and, eventually, hatred of her mother. Clytemnestra and Helen, too, play a role, as they evolve from sisters to strangers as Clytemnestra struggles with her sister’s role as the catalyst of the Trojan War and, by consequence, indirect instrument of Clytemnestra’s suffering. Cassandra, though slightly apart from the other two protagonists, serves as a scapegoat for the pain of the women around her – prophesying terrible events even as she is dismissed, only to be ostracized for predicting them when they occur. Moreover, Cassandra is a vehicle for describing the trauma inflicted upon women by the gods. Despite her devotion to and fervor for her religion, it is rejecting the violent sexual advances of Apollo, her god, that bring her to ruin. In this, Cassandra is a voice for all the women in greek mythology – Danaë, Alcmene, Leta, etc – whose assault is a footnote in the larger narrative of their child’s heroism.
Elektra is not an easy read. It is visceral portrait of human suffering that rips apart the stories we know in serves them up bloody and dripping. It is a story about ritual, about cycles of abuse and trauma, and the untold stories straining at the seams of an age. It is also an inherently feminist story – letting the three women at its heart be ugly and violent and honest in reclaiming the narrative of their pain. I applaud Jennifer Saint for creating a story that enchants even as it horrifies, pulling me back through time and space to feel connected to generations of women whose stories are trapped behind the curtain of history.