The Shadow of Perseus by Claire Heywood
Published by Dutton
Publication date: February 21, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Literary
For some, the retelling of Greek myths may have run its course, but for others (me!) I’m still on board to read mythology from a different perspective. My first 5-star novel of the year was Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes, a fiercely feminist, wickedly funny adaptation of the Medusa myth. Now, author Claire Heywood is tackling the same subject in her new novel, The Shadow of Perseus. It might be overkill (pun sort of intended) to read a second novel on the same subject so soon after the first, but Heywood goes in with a unique approach: What if there were no gods in the story? If it was nothing more than one young man in ancient times and the women he encounters when he decides to strike out on his own?
Even within this framework Heywood goes a step further by telling the entire story from the women’s point-of-view. The novel is neatly divided into four parts, each led by the woman in Perseus’ life at the time. The novel begins with his mother Danae, raising him alone, before segueing to his encounter with Medusa and later, his rescue of Andromeda. Danae reappears in part four, bringing the story full circle. Heywood doesn’t tinker with the outline of the myth. Rather, she scrubs the gods from the narrative. Perseus no longer has their guidance or their gifts in his quest. Even the reasons for his departure are more mundane—his mother is to marry again and he doesn’t want to share her attention. He’s 18 so the suggestion is made that he should see more of the world before settling down. He goes, but not before informing his mother she doesn’t have his permission to marry until he returns.
As for Medusa and Andromeda, they are both young women living in the restrictive landscape of the times. Medusa is part of a small band of women living in isolation to avoid the men who have abused them while Andromeda lives within a nomadic tribe. When she angers an elder by refusing to marry his son, instead of letting her father shoulder the tribe’s judgement she takes her fate into her own hands. Perseus stumbles upon the women in his travels and in his desire to prove himself a man changes their lives forever.
Greek mythology has entertained for millennia with its terrifying monsters, capricious gods, valiant heroes, and desperate women, but as posited by Heywood in The Shadow of Perseus, at what cost? Must boys kill to become men and are women born to be helpless victims? That she’s able to excavate such provocative themes through propulsive storytelling makes them all the more powerful. There’s no stridency in her prose, no stabbing home the point of outdated stereotypes, just a riveting tale of a misguided boy and the women who pay the price for his actions. This is masterful storytelling, but as a woman I couldn’t help but be reminded of Margaret Atwood’s sentiment about the fears of men and women, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
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