Book Review: Hera // Jennifer Saint

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Jennifer Saint’s latest novel does not disappoint. Hera is a continuation of her novel retellings of Greek myths, which pair a deep knowledge of the mythology with a very readable and engaging prose style. As the title suggests, this book is focused on the goddess Hera, and so breaks away from the more human stories that she has previously explored in her novels: Ariadne, Elektra, and Atlanta.

Saint’s narrative starts dramatically with a prologue set during the violence of the Titanomachy, in which the Olympian gods—headed-up by Hera and her brother Zeus—fight to overthrow the rule of the Titans, and in particular their child-eating father Cronus. Hera however, is not depicted as fighting directly alongside the other Olympian gods (her siblings), instead she fights with the monsters, Gaia’s children, who finally sway the balance of power in the Olympian’s favour, and show Gaia’s shaping of events. In starting with this section, Saint introduces the key conflicts, and questions of purpose, that drive Hera throughout the book.

If the relations between various figures seems a bit confusing to you—you are not alone. Saint helpfully includes a brief family tree with a note to explain that between different myths, and tellings of those myths, the relationships change and ultimately are based more on vibes than any consistent logic.

The main narrative starts with the Olympians having just taken power and continues through the famed myths of heroes to a scene in Athens that feels firmly grounded in the realm of recorded history. In less practised hands this might lead to an unfocused story, for the classic narrative structure of a life is not really applicable when dealing with immortals. However, Saint is able to both humanise Hera’s development, and so provide an understandable series of character changes that feel deeply grounded in human experience, and use that development to chart the story of all the gods, and so the wider world.

In doing this, threads from many sources are woven into a smooth textual fabric, stitching together stories of Gaia and so the world’s creation, aetiological stories that explain volcanoes and echoes, and the more tangible historical stories of Troy. I would almost go as far as to say this is done with a keener hand than by classical authors themselves, for Saint understands how to obliquely tack in the outline of a story, without distracting the reader from the overall narrative pattern, but truly it is a matter of genre, for this is most assuredly a novel with an undeniably skilfully paced plot, not a meandering pseudo-epic.

I rather like the way the narrative is formed by picking and choosing from different sources of Greek mythology, as I suppose any work of such scope must do, but what is even more enjoyable is the conscious way it does that. Stories such as the Judgement of Paris are mentioned, however, in this narrative they are just that—stories. Invented by people to explain away inconvenient truths, these tales meld over time with memories of real events.  

That is the crux of Saint’s skill. She accepts the multivalent nature of myths and is not afraid of adding her own authorial imprint to this retelling, for it is just as much a part of the mythos as the sources from which she draws.

Words by Ed Bedford

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