War is coming. Helen has run away with Paris and is living in Troy. Menelaus, Helen’s first husband, mobilises his troops, intent on bringing his wife back and punishing Troy.
Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, hopes for a swift resolution, one that brings her husband, Agamemnon, home safely. But as the war continues and Agamemnon’s enemies creep into court, Clytemnestra unravels the curse that plagues her husband’s family and fears for her children’s safety from their father.
Cassandra is a princess of Troy and priestess of Apollo, cursed with premonitions no one believes. She foresees her family’s downfall because of the actions of her younger brother, Paris, but no one takes her seriously.
Elektra is Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s youngest daughter, living in awe of her father and his heroic deeds though she barely knows him. When her family’s curse ruins her perfect childhood, her own future is uncertain. Will she be a victim of the curse or its agent?
Told through the three women’s points of view, Saint gives us the retelling of the war for Helen of Troy that we need. This retelling doesn’t glorify violence or shy away from it but shows us how the horror of war affects the women at home. The male characters are still present, controlling the lives of their wives, sisters, and daughters, but we focus on their struggle for some independence from seemingly inescapable male dominance.
Saint’s portrayal of Clytemnestra is so sympathetic. As the sister of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world who has the pick of heroes as her husband, Clytemnestra is often overlooked. Everything is effortless for Helen, while Clytemnestra must work at it, making her relatable. Also, Saint’s writing style is clean and concise, and Clytemnestra’s story is so painful that it was a difficult read, particularly as a mother. Elektra should come with a trigger warning.
I wish we had more of Cassandra’s story. Her parts were equally as agonising as Clytemnestra’s, as Cassandra suffers for not being graceful and articulate like her sisters, and when she is given the gift of prophecy, it quickly becomes a curse, further adding to her position as an outcast. However, Cassandra has one of the standout moments of the book when Apollo gifts her prophecy. It is beautiful and ecstatic, horrifying and poignant, and the end result was I felt physically sick.
I related to Elektra the least, but I feel that may have been the point. She doesn’t react to her father’s atrocities like the other women in the story. Instead, she sees them as appropriate for a man of his status, which puts her at odds with the other women and makes her later actions justifiable. Elektra could not have been shown any other way, which makes this story stand out from other feminist stories with a universal sisterhood. Surprisingly, although the book is named after her, Elektra doesn’t arrive in the book until two-thirds way through. The book is more about the circumstances of her parents and aunts, although every event does shape Elektra’s character. Rich and vibrant, yet painful and cruel, Elektra is a strong story about the effects of living in the shadow of a more popular or powerful family member. This second book from Jennifer Saint is as challenging and groundbreaking as her first, Ariadne. Despite how nauseous and sad Elektra made me, I will be looking for her future works.