Natalie Haynes has again returned to Greek Mythology to tell a tale in a different light. This time she is retelling the myth of Medusa.
Just as Jessie Burton did with her wonderful “Medusa The Girl Behind the Myth”, Haynes humanizes Medusa adding layers of emotion and empathy to a mythological monster. However, while Burton’s book focusses on Medusa and her meeting with Perseus. Haynes’s book covers more of Perseus’ quest and contains many more characters.
There is a narrator, Gorgoneion, who from the first page sets the tone,
“I see you. I see all those who men call monster. And I see the men who call them that. Call themselves heros, of course. I only see them for an instant, then they’re gone. But it’s enough. Enough to know that the hero Isn’t the one who’s kind or brave or loyal. Sometimes - not always, but sometimes - he is monstrous. And the monster? Who is she? She is what happens when someone cannot be saved. This particular monster is assaulted, abused and vilified. And yet, as the story is always told, she is the one you should fear. She is the monster. We’ll see about that”.
Gorgoneion’s identity remains a secret until the final part of the book, but Gorgoneion is not the only narrator. One chapter is narrated by an olive tree, another by the snakes on Medusa’s head. Each chapter is devoted to a different character, a format that works well with these retellings.
I think most people would know what happens in the story of Perseus and Medusa, so I won’t go into it. Just like many of the Greek Myths the definition of heroes and monsters is clear. There can be no mistake which is which. Black and white. The hero’s actions are always “right”. These actions never questioned. Go chop the head off a gorgon. This is fine, morally acceptable because the gorgon is a monster.
What Haynes has done with this novel is taken the roles of hero and monster and thrown them out the window. Who is a monster? Who makes that choice? Are the gorgons monsters simply because of their monstrous appearance? Is not Perseus the monster for coming to take the head of Medusa who has done nothing wrong? These are questions Haynes poses to the reader, blurring the line, muddying the waters, and questioning the definition.
Haynes started her career as a comedian and this retelling has a biting humorous edge to it. Much of it aimed at poor Perseus, who is portrayed as quite the bumbling fool in his quest to obtain a Gorgon’s head. The humour comes from the whole book, not just Perseus, however the conversations between Perseus, Hermes and Athena are hilarious.
Athena says to Zeus,
“He’s just a bag of meat wandering round, irritating people”
Haynes has done a remarkable job with this novel. Adding humour, questioning roles, and finishing with a great ending.
Natalie Haynes, author of THE FURIES (THE AMBER FURY in the UK), is a graduate of Cambridge University and an award-winning comedian, journalist, and broadcaster. She judged the Man Booker Prize in 2013 and was a judge for the final Orange Prize in 2012. Natalie was a regular panelist on BBC2’s Newsnight Review, Radio 4’s Saturday Review, and the long-running arts show, Front Row. She is a guest columnist for the The Independent and The Guardian. Her radio series, Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics, was first broadcast in March 2014.
A video interview from Thebibliofilles.