Last week I read Alcestis, the debut novel by Katharine Beutner and a subversive, powerful retelling of the Greek myth of the woman who trades places with her husband to journey into the Underworld.
They knew the child's name only because her mother died cursing it.So springs the title character, in a wash of blood and anger, onto the pages of Katharine Beutner's beautiful book about a princess whose coming of age literally involves going to hell and back.
Pick your poison--Read the Reviewer Version or the Fandom Version:
I found out about Alcestis in one of the best ways possible: via the author, katharine_b, contacting me to say that she had read my post on gay subtext and the media and thought I might like her novel. Well, I did like Alcestis, so much that I'm feeling hard-pressed to do justice to the beauty of it, the sheer literary quality combined with the joy of the familiar being retold/re-explored/reimagined, and above all a fabulously strong female protagonist, honest and bitter and satisfying on so many levels.
Alcestis draws on the legend as handed down by Euripides, which you don't need to know anything about to have read, because the story feels so new in this telling that I have a strong feeling going back to remind yourself of the original legend would probably just piss you off. :D Alcestis is born a princess, wedded off under rather extraordinary circumstances to a beautiful prince named Admetus, favored by Apollo. Gods are kind of awesome in Alcestis. And by "awesome" I mean "hot," and by "hot," I mean "terrifying." Actually, I think the neatest thing about Alcestis is that it pulls together so many elemental themes and wields them all with a constant blend of fascination and scariness. Life and death, mortality and immortality, identity, love, sex, and freedom--Beutner gives them all equal room to impress themselves upon you, and, once having impressed, to terrify and delight you in turn.
It all should feel weighty, but it doesn't--instead Alcestis sparks with the heroine's constantly shifting awareness of herself and her connection to the world around her--as well of her own definitions, her own boundaries, her own body:
All my life I had been given warnings: eyes down, voice soft, knees together. You're different, the servants had told me. You are not like us. We are not like you. A royal girl must lie like an undiscovered island, quiet and empty, skin clear and pure as miles of open shore just waiting for that first footprint, the rut of the hull in the sand, the press of discovery.
I'd listened, and I'd believed them, but I had not cared. Purity came easily to me -- I was young and alone and untempted. But as I watched the dancers, I thought I saw what the serving maids had meant. I was meant for marriage. I would marry, but I could never reveal to a man what was damp and hungry in me, not like these girls, these laughing children, destined to be shepherds' wives or sailors' mistresses, to die bearing or beaten or old. I leaned against the wall and I felt the skin of my inner thighs brush, the dry slide of hot skin and tiny hairs.
By turns erotic and angry, sensuous and sumptuous, bittersweet and triumphant, Alcestis' voice is rich and clear and (I know it is a cliche to say this, but it's true) superbly realized, especially considering this is KB's first novel. Her voice pushes you through the first 2 legs of Alcestis's journey, when Alcestis weathers a poignant family life, a harsh father figure, a mysterious courtship and an even more bizarre marriage ritual (when, for example, she and Admetus, her husband, are attacked by snakes because he forgot to pay homage to Artemis). It all might be weird, except that Alcestis steers us through the world of gods and goddesses with a steady, wry pov. And when we finally arrive in the Underworld, it not only feels as if we, along with Alcestis, have been journeying here all along, but as if we have awakened, finally, to life fully vivid and fully lusted-after, in this deadest of all possible worlds. (Shut up that is totally a pun.)
- Buy Alcestis from your local Indiebound bookseller
- buy Alcestis from Powell's
- Buy Alcestis from BookDepository
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