Medusa – Jessie Burton
Jessie Burton’s retelling of the Medusa story turns several of the recognised elements about Medusa on its head. This book asserts the tale of a woman as fascinating as anyone in Greek mythology and certainly one of the most tragic. Burton’s interpretation of Medusa is not the stereotypical fixation of a monster deployed as an opponent in a hero’s golden quest. She is a vividly drawn young woman, fearful, lonely, unsure of her future, and searching for answers.
The novel advocates a woman’s position, a woman wronged, and a journey to discover herself and find acceptance for what she has become. At one level, this can be interpreted as a feminist opportunity to illustrate the power of women and the deceit of men. Still, I instead wanted to see this through the lens of a dazzling tragedy of humanity.
Medusa was a beautiful young woman pursued by Poseidon until he raped her in Athena’s temple. Athena’s retribution was to punish Medusa and her two sisters by turning them into Gorgons. Stheno and Euryale became immortal winged beings, while Medusa, the mortal sister, with hair replaced by snakes, received a further cruel warning.
“ ‘Medusa, listen well. Woe betide any man fool enough to look upon you now!’ ‘What do you mean?’ I whispered, barely able to speak, but Athena saw no need to give me an answer.”
Medusa’s happy fishing life with her sisters is replaced with an isolated existence on a deserted island. While her sisters can fly off, Medusa is confined to the rocky landscape with only her dog as company. One day a young man lands on the island as if blown off course, but armed with his sword, shield and winged sandals all kept covered on his boat. Medusa directs him to the edge of her cave but warns him that he cannot come in or look at her. He says his name is Perseus, while Medusa claims her name is Merina.
As they spend their days talking, they realise the growing intimacy and the sense of companionship. They discuss many things and seem to be open and revealing about themselves. Although both still hide a secret. What is Perseus’s real mission and why won’t Medusa give her real name. Could this be love and will it survive if they tell each other their hidden secrets?
The book is a sensitive view of Medusa that we don’t usually have the opportunity to consider. Her fate designated at the hands of a God and Goddess feels cruel, how through no fault of her own has she been so horribly damned. As the story progresses, her sense of worth and hope grows. Perhaps she has overimagined or misunderstood Athena’s curse – “Woe betide any man fool enough to look upon you now!” Perhaps Perseus can help!
The book is an illustrated version, with remarkable drawings from Olivia Lomenech Gill, as they fit perfectly with the theme of Greek mythology and ancient history. I would recommend this book, and I want to thank Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing a free ARC in return for an honest review.