Her frame of reference expands out from the original texts (which she quotes in Greek to explain linguistic ambiguities) and classical artefacts to include Beyoncé, Ray Harryhausen and the social media response to the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, to illustrate how far the (often one-sided) narratives of these woman have penetrated our culture. “Myths are a mirror of us,” she says, and concludes that we cannot hope to understand ourselves if we have only a partial picture. This is an erudite, funny and sometimes angry attempt to fill in the blank spaces.
She writes that Achilles’ desire for Penthesilea is rather a late addition to the story; though in Quintus of Smyrna’s epic Posthomerica, we are told that Aphrodite, goddess of desire, makes the warrior-woman’s corpse lovely – such that Achilles grieves to have killed her instead of taking her back home as his wife. Such nerdish quibbles aside, this is a hugely enjoyable and witty book, which will appeal to admirers of novels such as Madeline Miller’s Circe, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, and Haynes’s own fiction. It is a generous book too, demonstrating how much space and energy there is in these old stories – stories that need only to be activated and animated by new readers and writers to burst into fresh life.
It is Haynes’s Medusa who emerges as the book’s true hero, however. She is powerful, wronged, anything but monstrous. Haynes compares her with Midas. Unlike the king whose touch turns everything to gold, and with whom we desperately sympathise, “we never stop to ask ourselves what it must be like to be her, possessed of a deadly gaze”. Medusa’s world, Haynes writes, “must be one of darkness and statues”.
You do not have to identify with Medusa as a woman to be moved and persuaded by writing like that. It makes the book’s moments of relatively football-fan feminism feel jarring. Haynes quotes an ancient description of the Amazons, for instance, as “a bunch of golden-shielded, silver-axed, man-loving, boy-killing women” — before adding that this “certainly makes me want to join them”.