Book Review

Elektra: A Novel Of The House Of Atreus

Elektra: A Novel of the House of Atreus

  • Author: Jennifer Saint
  • Genre: Greek Mythology
  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Publisher: Flatiron Books

Thank you to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for providing a copy of this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: murder, cannibalism, blood, rape

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The House of Atreus is cursed. A bloodline tainted by a generational cycle of violence and vengeance. This is the story of three women, their fates inextricably tied to this curse, and the fickle nature of men and gods.

Clytemnestra

The sister of Helen, wife of Agamemnon – her hopes of averting the curse are dashed when her sister is taken to Troy by the feckless Paris. Her husband raises a great army against them, and determines to win, whatever the cost.

Cassandra

Princess of Troy, and cursed by Apollo to see the future but never to be believed when she speaks of it. She is powerless in her knowledge that the city will fall.

Elektra

The youngest daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, Elektra is horrified by the bloodletting of her kin. But, can she escape the curse, or is her own destiny also bound by violence?

While this is titled Elektra, it actually focuses on three women—Clytemnestra, Elektra, and Cassandra, and the story easily flows over decades. While some of the story is familiar to me, we get more than the typical Trojan War rehash in this book. It starts well in advance, with Clytemnestra looking on as many suitors vie for her sister, Helen’s hand in marriage. We get to see the world through the eyes of these three very different women, and I was absolutely hooked from very early on. It presents a ton of information, but never felt overwhelming or as though it lagged.

Clytemnestra was probably my favorite perspective. We get a first-hand account of her life, including growing up as Helen’s twin in Sparta, marrying Agamemnon, bearing children, grieving unimaginable loss at the hands of her husband on the eve of the Trojan War, and sitting for a full decade and plotting her revenge.

I also liked seeing the world through Cassandra’s eyes—as she focused on becoming a devout priestess of Apollo, blessed with the gift of prophecy and simultaneously cursed with the fact that no one would believe the accurate visions she had, through the siege of Troy, and then briefly on her enslavement as a war prize of Agamemnon. Often, she was portrayed as mad rather than cursed by the gods, but in this book she’s lucid and sees reason more than any of the other characters.

The perspective I struggled with the most was that of Elektra. I could understand the nature of her rage, but I found that she was often single-minded, refusing to see even a hint of any other side to any situation, and focusing her entire life to revenge, regardless of who got hurt in the meantime.

These women are all so different, but strong and wily. In a world that offers women little power or agency, each of these have grasped the reins of their life to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, I know how Greek tragedies work, and was aware that none of these stories had a happy ending. My heart broke for these women, and the way that factors outside of their control had so much influence on the course of their lives, but also how their own objectives often set the wheels of destruction in motion, without them seeing their part in it until it was too late.

This reminded me somewhat of The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, although these women have far more freedom than the women captured and enslaved by the Greek army on their way to Troy. It really made me think about generational trauma, and how deeply this runs, quite like a curse, with everyone going around in circles as a result. Often, violence begets violence, hate leads to more hate, and then there isn’t any foreseeable way to end the cycle. 

I fell in love with the writing style as well. Saint manages to cram decades worth of experiences into a book that is just over 300 pages, and preventing the writing from dragging. This can’t be easy, especially as she covers the decade spent waiting for the war to end. It seems to be very well researched, covering all the bases of the original stories of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Elektra, plus more that I’m sure I’m not even aware of. I’m so grateful that I got the chance to read this before it was released, and it just reinforced my love of classical Greek mythology, especially those with a feminist twist to them.

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