by Jennifer Saint
‘What do you imagine the wedding of an Olympian god to be like? The bridal pair descending in a chariot of clouds, pulled by silver horses?’
The author’s debut novel, Ariadne is a retelling of an old Greek myth or, more correctly, two, maybe three, intertwined myths. First, we read of the Cretan Minotaur and its slaying by the hero Theseus. This is followed by Ariadne’s abandonment on the island of Naxos, her relationship with the god Dionysus and her eventual fate. Narrated by Ariadne herself, with interventions by her sister Phaedra, this is an intensely feminist novel, exploring how women’s lives are subject to the whims and ambitions of men . . . and gods.
‘A sharp, acidic flame scorched its way up my throat as Theseus lifted the cloth and scattered the bones, blood and flesh of the Minotaur across the beach. All that remained of my brother, Asterion … now smeared in broken pieces over the sand.’
Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete and of his queen, Pasiphae, herself a victim of immortal wrath and revenge. The monstrous child she has borne to the divine bull of Poseidon is imprisoned under the palace in a labrynth constructed by the craftsman Daedalus. And the price Minos has exacted for his peace with Athens is an annual sacrifice of fourteen of their children to the creature’s appetite. But when the handsome Prince Theseus, by his own choice, takes the place of one of the young Athenians, Ariadne and Phaedra help him destroy their ‘half-brother’.
‘Dionysus and I married on our beach at sunset with a circle of maenads around us ….’
Theseus does indeed take Ariadne away with him as he promised but he leaves Phaedra behind. Having seduced Ariadne, (probably the wrong word, because she goes to bed with him willingly) he maroons her on Naxos, Dionysus’ magical island. Eventually, the god himself comes, ‘marries’ Ariadne and, in the years which follow, they have several children. All that appears to mar Ariadne’s life of sunshine and wine is the shock at discovering the sacrificial ritual which her husband inspires in his followers. Meantime, Phaedra is betrothed to Theseus and becomes Queen of Athens. However, unlike her sister, her marriage is an unhappy one and she cannot love her children.
While the sisters try to come to terms with their destinies, gods, demigods and heroes (in confusing promiscuity) battle in the background: Dionysus with Hera; Perseus – yes, he is in it too, complete with mirror shield and Medusa’s head) – with Dionysus, each endeavouring to come out on top, and to hell with the mortals. Lots of blood and wine will flow before the end!
‘Above the throng of men, standing at the summit of the hill behind, Perseus was unmistakeable. His shield shone silver through the rain, uncovered to reveal the monstrous visage of Medusa, screaming from the metal in which she was forever fixed.’
The Greek myths always make great stories and many writers of past and present have taken advantage of the fact. In reading Ariadne, I was immediately reminded of Mary Renault’s The Bull from the Sea and The King Must Die, but Jennifer Saint’s approach is quite different. Like Madeline Miller, she gives the characters new attributes, motivation and flaws. Ariadne is an extremely well-written story and if I had difficulty coming to terms with some of the finer points of her feminism that isn’t Saint’s fault.
On the negative side, I don’t think Ariadne has the WOW of Miller’s The Song of Achilles. However, that doesn’t stop me recommending it as a good read. On the positive, I have the author’s signature, having bought the exclusive Waterstones edition. 🙂