Book Review: Ariadne // Jennifer Saint

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It would be easy to view Ariadne by Jennifer Saint as just another retelling of a classical myth. Instead, Saint takes the character of Ariadne and follows her story, whilst incorporating other myths, from Daedalus and Icarus, to that of Acoetes and Dionysus. The world of Ariadne is thus given a complete feel and enthralling narrative potential.

This is a story many people will be familiar with, thus Saint seems to take pleasure in playing with the reader’s expectations. There are many little details that appear to be foreshadowing, yet when the time comes Saint neatly sidesteps the anticipated event. For this reason, this review will avoid going into too much plot-specific detail, although it will assume that the broad strokes are so commonly written about that they can no longer be spoiled.

In following Ariadne, Saint can both build a narrative that can rival any modern novel and play with the different versions of myths and how each telling is always an interpretation, which must decide which characters are to be celebrated and which are to be demoted to insignificance, or blamed for their own fates.

It is particularly notable that by choosing Ariadne as the focal point, the stories of women such as Medusa, Semele, Pasiphaë, and Phaedra can be interwoven into the narrative without it seeming strained. These female characters are wildly different, yet all share similar fates. That is, they are all punished for the actions of their male counterparts. It is not the case that Saint has created any new backstories to provide these female characters with pathos. She has just decided, rightly, that stories should not skip over female suffering, for the sake of simplistic, male-centred morality tales.

Alongside this treatment of women in Greek mythology, Saint’s narrative has none of the overly contrived plot details which are so often used to excuse the failings of male heroes. For example, Theseus is not simply excused for his misdeeds by divine intervention. That is not to say that characters like Theseus are devoid of depth and portrayed as one-dimensional villains. By giving a complex characterisation to these more negatively portrayed characters, Saint permits the reader to gauge an understanding of why they act as they do. This, however, does not in any way make their behaviour seem acceptable or excuse it.

Ariadne is not written to force any idea of morality, and so is a pleasing change from many older retellings of these myths. Instead, Saint removes the misogynistic, imperialistic, and moralistic undercurrents and replaces it with a nuanced exploration of character, leaving judgement to the individual reader.

The skill of Saint’s characterisation is most prominently felt in that of Dionysus. He is given a vitality and youthful sense of liberation, which cannot hide his separation from humanity, even as great pathos is created. This pathos stems from the beautiful exploration of his relationship with his human mother Semele. Saint’s treatment of the characters and myths creates a compelling narrative with believable characters. And so, Ariadne provides the perfect antidote to the frequently misogynistic and frankly dull versions of the story which solely focus on Theseus.

Words by Ed Bedford

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