“Ariadne” by Jennifer Saint

But for me, the true gift was to watch them work and talk unconstrained. No men chaperoned them here, in thsi space sacred to women and thr goddess. I could watch the animation light their young faces and I could hear their breathless, excited conversations conversations echo of two sisters who had loved each other all those years ago in Crete.

In Ariadne, Jennifer Saint ( Hachette India) has not deviated from the well-told Greek myths. Instead she is so familiar with them, even the number of variations, that she is unfazed about multiple versions floating about. She knows the basic elements of every story, every Olympian God, every mortal, the legends and acts. Like an old-fashioned storyteller she weaves the stories together seamlessly. They are so smoothly nested inside one another  without being jarring. The digressions, if you can call them that, happen beautifully. It is almost as if Ariadne becomes the reason to retell many of the popular Greek myths. It is the mesmerising storytelling meant for children but told to adults. It works. So many of the stories such as the twelve labours of Heracles, various quests of Theseus, King Minos, Minotaur, Zeus/Herald and Dionysius, travel to Hades, Medea, King Midas, Jason and the golden fleece and much, much more. 

Of course the focus is on the two sisters Ariadne and Phaedra. It becomes an excuse to explore sisterhood, friendships among women, building a community of women as Phaedra did when she invited talented weavers across Athens to create a bigger peplos than has ever been seen before, “big enough for the state of Athen at the heart of our city, and magnificent enough to please the goddess”. Her descriptions are stunning. For instance, this beautiful description of Helios’s daughter, Pasiphae, by her daughter, Ariadne.

Unlike the searing blaze of my grandfather, she shimmered with a gentle radiance. I remember the soft beams of her strange, bronze-tinged eyes, the warmth of summer in her embrace and the molten sunshine in her laughter.

The men too are discussed from the perspective of the women. It is much like the exploration Chitra Bannerji Divakurni did in The Palace of Illusions. Suddenly, the women in these myths/epics came alive as women of strength and character, not neceaarily as pawns in the hands of men. Having said that, Ariadne follows in the very contemporary trend of writers such as Pat Barker, Madeline Miller, and Natalie Haynes in retelling the Greek myths by exploring modern and liberal aspects. Earlier they may have only been hinted at but are now explored with confidence.

Good stuff!

3 July 2021

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