Something that I’ve always liked to do when reading by myself is to pause whenever I come to a particularly beautiful line of prose or dialogue and to read it out loud to the empty room. I realise this might seem a little odd, but it’s my way of slowing down my reading, allowing myself to fully appreciate that elusive, truly exquisite piece of writing. I’m telling you this because, by the time I finished reading Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne, my throat was hoarse from all the talking.
The novel is a modern retelling that focuses on the eponymous Ariadne from Greek mythology. As the daughter of Minos, King of Crete, and granddaughter to Helios, god of the sun, Ariadne grows up in a life of luxury, accustomed to the many benefits offered to a Cretian princess. Yet her title also brings with it terrible misfortune, for while Ariadne is still a child, her mother bears yet another son—only this child is nothing like the world has ever seen before. Part-man, part-bull, he is the Minotaur, a creature destined to spread fear and disgust throughout Greece. King Minos is quick to use the creature to his advantage, and he seals him in an immense labyrinth hidden under the city, where, once a year, every year, an unfortunate group of seven Athenian men and seven Athenian women will be offered up to appease the Minotaur. Ariadne spends her childhood observing the gruesome tradition, trying to block out the furious cries from beneath her feet, and so when handsome Theseus, Prince of Athens, plans to slay the beast, Ariadne knows that she must do whatever it takes to help him bring about the end of her father’s—and her brother’s—terrible reign.
From there on, we follow the fascinating story of Ariadne, as she leaves her childhood behind and comes to realise what it truly means to be a woman living in Greece, where every man and every god is a potential threat, and where the life of a woman matters little when heroes still walk the earth. Jennifer Saint takes us on a mesmerising journey through Ariadne’s story, bringing her to life in what can only be described as a truly masterful debut.
What the gods liked was ferocity, savagery, the snarl and the bite and the fear. Always, always the fear, the naked edge of it behind the smoke rising from the alters, the high note of it in the muttered prayers and praise we sent heavenward, the deep, primal taste of it when we raised the knife above the sacrificial offering.Ariadne | Chapter Two
The first thing to address here is the quality of the writing in this novel, because, as I have already insinuated, it is exquisite. Jennifer Saint successfully merges lyrical descriptive writing with curt, honest dialogue that bridges the gap between modern writing and the more detailed descriptions found in Homer and Virgil. She also successfully captures the style of these epic poets, dedicating entire chapters to dialogue-based discussions and making full-use of epithets when describing certain characters. No, the writing may not be “perfect”, and there are times where Saint almost appears to be trying a little too hard to create beautiful, quote-worthy sentences, but there can be no denying that this book is exceptionally well-written.
The characters in this novel are also really well-developed, for although this is primarily Ariadne’s story, she shares it with her sister, Phaedra, Theseus, the Prince of Athens, and the many other heroes and gods she meets along her way. Indeed, while the novel is called Ariadne, it might as well be called Ariadne and Phaedra, for much of the book focuses on the sisters’ relationship, and it actually becomes a dual narrative part-way through, with Phaedra’s story filling almost as many pages as Ariadne’s. Now, while I loved how this allowed us to learn more about Phaedra, who was actually my favourite character for a while, there were some inconsistencies here that I found a little odd; firstly, I wish Ariadne actually began as a dual narrative, rather than picking up on Phaedra’s narration later on; secondly, I found that in some of Phaedra’s chapters, the tense in which Saint was writing changed, which really threw me off at first. That said, these are just minor gripes, for the characters in this novel are, for the most part, very believable and well-developed. They all have their flaws—especially Ariadne—and that is what kept me feeling so engrossed and invested in their stories.
Before I continue with this review, I want to briefly address the “controversy” associated with Ariadne, for while some readers (like me!) love this book, others have had their issues with it, and I think this is why: the book has been marketed as a “feminist retelling”. The thing is, other than putting Ariadne in the heart of the story, rather than in the background, it’s not particularly feminist—or at least not as much so that this should be its main selling factor. This is where many reviewers have compared Ariadne to Madeline Miller’s Circe, and, really, it’s quite difficult not to compare the two, especially as Circe truly is a feminist retelling. In her novel, Circe finds herself abandoned on a deserted island, and yet she uses this to her advantage, growing as both a witch and as a woman. When Ariadne finds herself in a similar situation, however, she fades away, becoming a shadow of her former self. I’m not going to pretend that this affected me as a reader, because, honestly, it didn’t. I love this book, and I don’t mind that Ariadne isn’t a particularly strong-willed character. Then again, I do understand why showing Ariadne in this way after labelling the book “feminist” would upset some readers, and while I will not pretend to be an expert on this subject, I do think it’s worth noting that this perhaps Ariadne isn’t as “feminist” as it is described to be.
I honestly wish I could keep talking about this book for hours. There was so much that I loved about it—the writing, the homage made to the epic poets, the fascinating cast of characters, the divisions cast between the gods and the mortals; the frequent “side-stories” that diverged from Ariadne’s main story and enriched the overall narrative; and, once again, the writing—the awe-inspiring, truly glorious writing. Ariadne has been my favourite read of 2022 so far, and I have already preordered Saint’s next novel, Elektra. I know the “feminist” label did irritate quite a few of Ariadne‘s readers, but I can only hope that this issue does not resurface for Elektra. Honestly, this novel is incredible, and it is one I will not forget for a long time to come.
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