Even if you are not a lover of Greek Mythology the chances are extremely high that you will at least have heard of the infamous Gorgon named Medusa.
Jessie Burton has followed down the path taken by writers such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, and Natalie Haynes. And that path is retelling these ancient myths from the perspective of, not minor characters, but characters who do not shine in the spotlight. In particular the female voice rarely heard in many of these tales.
With this novel Burton tells the story of Medusa and Perseus from Medusa’s perspective. Giving her a very human side.
Burton’s Medusa is a young woman trapped in her own body. Her body transformed into the monster by Athena that is now her prison. She is unbearably lonely, horrified by what she has become. Indelibly she is slowly dying inside.
As with many of the Greek Myths, mortals should always be careful what they promise, and what they wish for from the gods. The Greek gods all seem to have a wicked sense of humor and take pleasure in twisting a mortal’s wish simply to take pleasure in the results.
So, when Poseidon takes an interest in Medusa while she fishes in her little skiff, there is very little she can do to repel his unwanted advances. Even when she stops taking to the waters to fish, Poseidon punishes her village with floods and storms.
Medusa’s sisters, who are both immortal, think that the only way to stop a god is to ask another god for help. They ask Athena to help. Athena gives Medusa refuge in her temple, and for a short time it appears that everything is fine. But Poseidon, enraged, leaves the sea and rapes Medusa, destroying Athena’s temple in the process. When Athena finds out what has happened, she blames Medusa for desecrating her temple and sanctuary. Just as enraged as Poseidon, Athena turns each and every strand of Medusa’s beautiful hair into a snake. She then declares, “Woe betide any man fool enough to look upon you”. I do believe that every reader of this book knows what she means, but Medusa is puzzled. Is it a warning?
When the novel opens Medusa has been living in a cave on a remote island for four years. When Perseus washes up on her island, she helplessly cannot resist talking to him. She makes Perseus stay on the outside of the cave wall while they converse and ultimately get closer to each other. With each day affection grows on both sides, with Perseus declaring that he thinks he loves Medusa, Medusa realizes that she feels the same.
“I marvelled that we could fall for each other without meeting face to face, that the mortal mind was capable of such gymnastics when it wanted.”
They promise to tell each other their story. Medusa, what she now is, and how she became this way, and Perseus why he is truly on the island. It seems he has not just washed up randomly at all. King Polydectes has charged Perseus with the task of cutting of Medusa’s head.
Both Medusa and Perseus just youngsters, who were falling in love. Both forced to change, to be something they’re not. Medusa forced by the gods. Perseus forced by King Polydectes.
We all know what happens, but I will stop there, leaving you dear reader in Burton’s capable hands as she ends her marvelous retelling of this tale with a climactic ending.
I must give recognition to Olivia Lomenech Gill for the many wondrous, beautiful illustrations. They add so much to the story.
Jessie Burton studied at Oxford University and the Central School of Speech and Drama, where she appeared in productions of The House of Bernarda Alba, Othello, Play and Macbeth. In April 2013 her first novel, The Miniaturist, was sold at an 11-publisher auction at the London Book Fair, and went on to sell in 29 other countries around the world. It was published by Picador in the UK and Holland in July 2014, and the USA in August 2014, with other translations to follow. Radio 4 commissioned it as their Book at Bedtime in July 2014. Her second book, The Muse, set in a dual time-frame, during the Spanish Civil War and 30 years later in 1960s London, was published in 2016. Jessie's first novel for children.