16th Nov 2010
Alcestis by Katherine Beutner
Retelling of ancient myths is always fun, all the more so when the heroes and heroines are ones that not that many people have heard of.
Alcestis was apparently revered by the Ancient Greeks as the ‘perfect wife’. When her husband Admentus was spared from death if someone else would take his place, Alcestis braved the underworld for him, only to be rescued by Hercules and returned to her family.
In Katherine Beutner‘s retelling, with a decidedly Sapphic flavour and strong feminist undertones, Alcestis is passed from man to man; a bartering tool for her cruel emotionless father and a weak-willed husband, under the sway of his lover, the god Apollo.
Alcestis chooses to take Admentus’ place not out of any love for her husband, but in order to be reunited with her beloved sister, Hippothoe, who died as a child.
Whilst journeying through the underworld Alcestis falls for Persephone, the queen of the dead, and they become lovers.
Beautner’s style of writing is evocative and enthralling; the first half of the book contains some of the finest written passages I have read this year.
The depiction of a mythical palace rooted in a very real and unforgiving world, where kings can harness boars and lions to carriages but children can still die of asthma attacks, transfixed me and I was utterly addicted to this novel.
Sadly, as soon as Alcestis descends into the underworld, the story seems to fall with her. The overly descriptive passages and long, wandering ramblings between the fields of the underworld are interesting, but not as half as gripping as the ‘real’ world.
The relationship between Persephone and Alcestis is unbelievable, the dialogue between them clunky and staged, and the sex scenes reminded me of a Sarah Kane’s Blasted; brilliant, yet disturbing.
The underworld came across as a strange and unforgiving place, and the writing was very atmospheric; fans of gothic horror will be enthralled, but was it was in such stark contrast to the brilliantly concise first half I became confused.
The two halves of the story were independently good, but did not mesh, and although this was artistically a good device to show the differences between the under and over world, it did not endear me, the reader, to the story.
The first half of the book, however, makes this a definite must read for me. The relationship between Alcestis and her family, in particular Hippothoe, was beautifully done and well-crafted; the first chapter had me in the sweating kitchens breathing in the steam with them.
Anyone with a sibling who has been seriously ill will recognise the blind grip of fear and panic of seeing them thus, and the idea of Alcestis never getting over her sister’s premature death and this being the reason for her volunteering to take her husband’s place in the underworld is a good one well executed.
Alcestis is constantly used by men for their own means but this book also explores the ancient idea of Fate; a feminist interpretation of this book must also acknowledge the hierarchies of power from servant to mistress, mistress to master, master to God. This is an excellent example of the kyriarchy, rather than the patriarchy at work.
As a retelling of the myth, I would recommend this book and I would look forward to reading more from Beutner, definitely a writer to watch. The atmospheric writing would be perfect for a stormy Sunday afternoon, so get it in as a pre-festive treat.