Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book Review: "Alcestis" by Katharine Beutner

This story is a retelling of the Greek myth about the good wife who loved her husband so much she sacrificed her life to save his. According to the myth Alcestis' act of love and courage so impressed the gods, they returned her to her husband, alive again after three days. She resumed her married life and bore her husband two children, one of which became a hero in the Trojan war.

This novel looks deeper at the story, exploring the motivations behind the actions of the characters. In this novel, Alcestis' act of self-sacrifice is motivated more by pride than by love. In an amazing moment of clarity in the midst of a chaotic scene, Alcestis decides she'd rather die than live as the widow of a coward. After her death, she explores the Underworld from one end to the other, searching for her long-dead sister. She is surprised to find in Hades her one true love. She accepts her resurrection reluctantly.  So reluctantly that she is unable to speak for several days after returning to life.

This is a very short novel, which is appropriate to the relatively simple story. The writing is lovely. The archetypal characters from the Greek myth come to life, complete with interesting personal foibles.

It's a terrifying story, but it is narrated so gently and matter-of-factly by Alcestis herself, that I didn't experience it as frightening (except for the snakes in the bridal chamber) until after I had finished it. The story sort of floats along like a ride on Charon's raft. At the end, the themes continue to echo. Is a life constrained by a misogynistic culture and subject to capricious and even cruel gods something to cling to and cherish? Is the perfect freedom of death something to fear? Is perfect freedom not a potential burden? Is Paradise potentially eternally boring?

I like a book that echoes around in my head for a while and leaves me with ideas to ponder long after I put the book away.

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