My thanks to Headline and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.
I can’t quite remember when I first heard of the minotaur and the labyrinth in Crete—it was either in my school English book (class 5?) which had the story of Theseus killing the minotaur, and finding his way out of the labyrinth with the ball of golden string or in the Bobbsey Twins’ Greek Hat Mystery where the children go to Crete (though I don’t remember if Theseus was mentioned). I don’t remember if Ariadne was mentioned in either story but the school book one did cast Theseus as the hero—and that is what this book challenges.
Ariadne is, as the description says, a retelling of the story of Theseus and the minotaur but it is much more. Opening powerfully, the initial section is told in the voice of Ariadne, princess of Crete, as she describes how her father, Minos, treated Scylla who stood with him against her own people and of Medusa who paid for the sins of another as did her own mother Pasiphae who suffered for her husband’s arrogance (I wondered why Medea’s story is not seen through this lens, though–she is seen as a witch). The minotaur, born to Pasiphae as a result, sees sympathy only from Ariadne but is soon beyond loving or ‘taming’, and becomes Minos’ weapon to terrorise everyone, including Athens, defeated at his hands. With Theseus’ arrival, Ariadne thinks she has found love and freedom but her fate is no better than that of countless other women including those she has described and she finds herself abandoned on Naxos awaiting death, until Dionysus comes upon her.
Alongside we alternately follow the narrative of Phaedra, her younger sister. Also initially taken with Theseus, Phaedra soon becomes aware of his true nature—he is a hero concerned only with being a hero and having adventures that bring him fame, anyone who helps him is never acknowledged, he takes whatever he wishes, irrespective of whom he hurts, and he is not interested with any problems of everyday life, like the welfare of his people. In a marriage that circumstances force her into, Phaedra finds some solace in the power she can wield as she rules in Theseus’ place. The two sisters’ lives take them on very different paths, yet both face and constantly acknowledge the restrictions placed on them, the injustices that they must bear and the conduct expected of him as women.
Having enjoyed Circe by Madeline Miller, this one which was compared to it caught my eye and I felt it certainly lived up to my expectations. Ariadne and Phaedra are both strong characters, yet very different from the other and I liked that their voices were different even though both recognise the boundaries they must live within (whether or not they like it), and express themselves as best they can within these. While Phaedra finds she can use her intelligence as de facto ruler of Athens, Ariadne settles into a more conventional (yet very different life) when she finds Dionysus who can understand her because of his own story. But the real power unfortunately continues to lie beyond them, in social convention, with men and the gods, and this is eventually what dictates the reality of their lives.
This was beautifully written, engrossing and strongly feminist—and one I certainly recommend!