My thanks to Nobrow Press for sending me a copy of These Great Athenians in exchange for an honest review.
In this verse-novella, Valentine Carter has brought to life a swathe of female voices from the Odyssey: some the better known characters (like Penelope, wife of Odysseus, or Circe, the enchantress) and some much less well-known, like Melantho, a slave girl in Penelope’s house, or Maera, a hound.
The novella sits within the recent vogue for retellings of Greek myth from the female perspective – characterised by the likes of Circe by Madeline Miller, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, or the recent Ariadne and Elektra by Jennifer Saint – but also seems rather distinct. Because unlike most of the other retellings, These Great Athenians is written in verse, and its poetic form stands right at the centre of the reading experience.
It is a beautiful book. Each one of the perspectives it covers is assigned a different coloured page edge – a blue-grey for Penelope, black for Scylla, crimson for Athena, and so on – and the cover, illustrated by Avalon Nuovo and designed by Emily Sear, shows gilt-edged flowers of tied fabric – aligning with the theme of weaving that comes up so often throughout the book.
It is also an intricate book. The poems are not of a single form, but rather each reflects the character and mood of the specific story it tells. Penelope’s poem repeats itself, just as she repetitively weaves and then picks apart her father-in-law’s funeral shroud as a delaying tactic to put off her suitors. The pages dedicated to Scylla the sea monster are each filled with only a few lines, so they sprawl tentacle-like through the book, and you read at an astounding rate in keeping with Scylla’s tension and rage. Then there’s the single poem on yellow paper interspersed between the women’s perspectives, a couple of stanzas each time, becoming complete only by the end.
All this artistry of form perhaps makes the book feel more complex, less accessible, than its sister retellings in prose. There’s some truth in that – but it’s not the whole truth about this book.
While I do think that the more you know the Odyssey the more layers you may get out of this knowing and playful subversion of it, you absolutely do not have to be an expert in order to appreciate this book. It does help to know the bare bones of the women’s backstories, but that’s nothing a quick google (or indeed the Glossary at the end of the book) doesn’t supply, and the humanity and pinpoint perception of the stories are I think then as accessible as any other well-crafted volume of poetry that centres around human experience.
I’l come back to this thought in my conclusions but for now I’d like to spotlight a few of my favourite moments.
I was moved by Melantho’s section. She has only a bit part in the Odyssey: a slave girl of Penelope’s, given trinkets by her mistress, who comes across Odysseus when he first returns home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, berates him for coming in the house and tells him to go sleep in the stable. She is also mentioned to be sleeping with Penelope’s suitors, and she may be one of the slave girls who – as punishment for the above transgression – is forced to clean away the carnage left by the eventual slaughter of Penelope’s suitors and then hanged. Yes, hanged. It’s a dramatic fate for someone hardly given any screen time!
The slaughter at the end of the Odyssey has always drawn interest from scholars. Unlike the epic battles of the Iliad, waged on the fields around Troy, this battle has a domestic, almost comic, flavour – yet its bloodiness cannot be denied. The subsequent hanging of the slave girls feels arguably even colder, even crueller, and is made quite horrific even in the original* with a simile comparing the women cornered in the yard to thrushes or doves beating against a net as they try to reach their nest.
These Great Athenians retells the story from Melantho’s perspective, as one of these unfortunate slave girls, and it seemed very fitting to me to see this contentious slaughter from the perspective of one of its victims rather than that of its perpetrators. We learn of the choices Melantho made within a life where choice is minimal. Faced with the unwanted attentions of the suitors, she makes the most of things, cultivating a relationship with the least repugnant of them. She often has to wash the feet of men after they’ve been in battle, and we are given her beautifully wry commentary on that –
Hold the brave and muscular leg, always
maintain awareness of what an honour this
is. Men cannot wash themselves but it is not
every woman that is chosen to wash them.
We then return to this washing later, when Melantho cleans up the slaughtered suitors, right before her own slaughter. Her story is told as a tragedy and her voice beautifully crafted – engaging, sardonic, bitter, proud.
The section set in the underworld is told as a series of overheard snippets of conversation. They are wonderfully funny. I loved the conversation between Megara, wife of Hercules, and Epicaste, otherwise known as Jocasta, who inadvertently married her son.
there she goes / oh yeah / she’s got a nerve / who / Leda / how come / I mean / what? / a swan / I thought it was Zeus / it was, as a swan / these gods / I know but Megara you wouldn’t / if it was Zeus / Megara! / What lord of
Olympus? I might / a swan though, nasty creatures…
…I feel sorry for her / do you? / everyone knows / do they? / there are pictures of it everywhere / are there / yes even in the future / I mean / we’ve all got something we’re not proud of / I don’t / you did marry Oedipus,
Also the brilliant awkwardness of Ariadne, who helped Theseus kill the minotaur, and Phaedra, her sister who ran off with Theseus subsequently:
(silence) / (no reply) / (Ariadne sighs) / (silence) / (no reply) / (awkward pause) / (another sigh) / (Phaedra steps carefully over a clavicle)…
There’s a section towards the end set in a public bathroom. The women gather there and there’s a sense of companionship and camaraderie:
These toilets are riotous
With Circe and Calypso comparing notes,
While Athena inspects her ageless face
And Scylla spills saltily over the top
Of the end cubicle…
And Penelope wonders where is the fabled competition, the bitchy asides?
Where are the snide remarks and sidelong glances?
There is only an admired hand cream
Shared, a safe taxi app recommended and
A word of comfort and encouragement.
I love this imagined scene of the characters gathering together in a context so funny and irreverent as a public toilet. They come from a mythical world where they exist in isolation from each other, linked only by their relationships to male characters, but here they elude the drama of their origin stories and share a sense of common experience as women. Its funny and touching and, in the end, hopeful.
Circe of a time, far away now, when she was
Taken to a library and, standing at the
Start of the bookshelves, stretching ahead of her
Like a maze, she felt overwhelmed by all the
Possible futures within reach.
When I started this book, I thought I would like it but not love it. The hardback was really pleasant to hold and leaf through, and I enjoyed letting the verse wash over me. I admired the way it was crafted, but honestly I didn’t expect to be so moved.
So here’s where I think the real strength of These Great Athenians lies. Calling it a ‘Greek myth retelling’ is too narrow. Rather, it uses these old stories – their imagery, their drama, and crucially their omissions – to speak to things much closer to home. At its heart, it is a book about the female perspective, and also the outsider perspective. Those omitted, separated, lost. It brings those voices together again, like threads on a loom, to speak their stories and find some solace in the acknowledgement of each other. It’s a theme that gathers momentum throughout the book, through all the various perspectives, culminating in the ensemble section, and wrapped up by the interweaving poem on the yellow pages, which clearly states this theme.
Here we are, we are sisters now
Scattered on different islands but
Steady before our looms, shuttles
Chattering, revealing our designs
This is a community of sorts
Or perhaps a secret society
The quiet signals singing across oceans
Gathering, gathering, gathering
So I would urge any reader not to go into this book expecting something traditionally character-based like a prose retelling, nor really to go into it for the sake of geeking out over the the Odyssey (though it is of course possible to do that a bit!) Rather, reach for These Great Athenians if you are in the mood for poetry, imagery, beauty, humour, and a sad yet hopeful message, all wrapped up in the weave of myth.
*For the purposes of this review, I’m using ‘the original’ to mean Homer’s Odyssey, but I note here the necessary caveat that it is merely the version of the epic we happen to have preserved to us in writing. The oral tradition meant there were likely many versions of the story. Whether the one we have was a culmination of those evolving stories, or a snapshot of one of them, or an amalgamation of many of them, or something else… no one knows!