Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne was featured in our best books of 2021 list and within just a few chapters of Elektra, it’s clear that the author’s follow-up book will be equally lauded and adored. Set in the same world of Greek mythology but centred on different characters, Elektra is the story of three women in ancient Greece: Clytemnestra – the oft overlooked sister of Helen of Troy and the wife of Agamemnon; Cassandra – the cursed Princess of Troy trapped in a besieged city, and Elektra, Clytemnestra’s youngest daughter, who finds herself torn between her father’s bloodlust and her mother’s vengeance.
Though Elektra is the titular character, it’s perhaps surprising that she doesn’t truly come into her own until a little later into the book. The first part of the story gives a greater focus on Clytemnestra and Cassandra, separated by oceans and armies, but connected by their lack of power. Hoping to break the cycle of men killing their own kin for the throne, Clytemnestra marries Agamemnon and for a time she’s happy. But when her sister, Helen, is taken to Troy with the feckless Paris, Agamemnon raises a great army against the Trojans. To win favour with the gods, he makes a terrible sacrifice that breaks something in Clytemnestra. Consumed by her hate for her husband, she dreams of his downfall. It might be years until the war is over, but Clytemnestra is determined to get her revenge.
Across the seas, Cassandra is a princess with the gift of foresight but, cursed by Apollo, nobody believes her when she tries to warn them of the future. She knows that Paris will bring ruin on her people, that her city will eventually fall, but she can’t stop the events already in motion. Elektra feels equally powerless. Growing up with the father she adores fighting a war in a foreign land, she lives for his triumphant return. In his absence, Agamemnon becomes a god-like figure and it pits Elektra against her mother. Elektra knows that Clytemnestra is plotting something terrible, she just doesn’t know what. As the war rages on, the ferocity building on both sides, Elektra becomes consumed by her own rage, turning it on the one person who always tried to protect her.
I see it all the time, in my mind’s eye. How he will storm the gates of the city; how they will fall cowering at his feet at last. And after it all, he will come home to me. His loyal daughter, waiting here for him as year after year passes.”
In her novel Daughters of Sparta, Claire Heywood explored the story of sisters Helen and Clytemnestra. Elektra was just a child in that book, her anger simmering under the surface, and she was more of a background character. In Saint’s novel, Elektra grows from that cross child into a bitter young woman. Her wrath is potent; many of her chapters are spent lurking in the shadows – watching and waiting. She’s a strong yet desperate character, fiercely loyal to her father but misguided in her belief that he’s some kind of saviour being betrayed by his wife. Clytemnestra is a much more sympathetic character but her understandable inability to move past her grief ruins her relationship with Elektra. The more time passes, the more the chasm between them grows, until there’s no way they can ever reconcile.
Saint writes her characters in such a way that they feel entirely real. Fabled figures including Hector and Achilles play small but pivotal parts during the palpable war between Sparta and Troy, but Elektra begins and ends as a story about women. They love and hate and hurt, just like any figure from history. They are victims of the cycle of violence that built their world, but Saint’s expressive storytelling allows their voices to be heard amidst the darkness. Despite their sufferings, these mythological women are cloaked in strength, bravery and a formidable rage that makes reading this novel a powerful and emotional experience. It’s a simply stunning retelling.
Elektra is published by Wildfire on 28 April 2022