Tag Archives: retelling

Review: Frankissstein

CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.

My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!

frankisssteinIn the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.

“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”

I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.

The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.

One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.

“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”

The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.

Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.

“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”

Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.

More of my Booker nominee reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, Night Boat to Tangier, and An Orchestra of Minorities.

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Silence of the Girls

Booker Prize Winner Pat Barker’s new release, The Silence of the Girls, was one of my Book of the Month selections for September. It’s a somewhat-modernized retelling of Homer’s The Iliad with a heavier focus on some of the female characters– primarily Achilles’s new slave woman, Briseis.

thesilenceofthegirlsAbout the book: Briseis has married a king and done well for herself, even if her husband prefers another woman and his mother hates her for her apparent barrenness. She’s royalty. At least, she is until her city falls to Achilles. The men are killed, the goods looted, and the women taken to the encamped Greek army on the shores of Troy– Briseis among them. To the Greeks, she is no one. Maybe an important slave because of her previous royal ranking, but a slave nonetheless. She is given to Achilles as a war prize. In his huts and throughout the army compound, she becomes acquainted with the other women and the notable Greeks, just as the war is reaching its dramatic climax.

“I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.”

The Silence of the Girls is a beautiful book that gives women a voice in a tale that’s been dominated by men for thousands of years. It gives a girl that Homer doesn’t honor with much mention a whole life, thoughts, opinions, and wishes. For that alone, I wanted to love this book, but in the end, I only liked it.

I have quite a list of pros and cons. First, this is a modernized retelling. It still takes place in ancient Greece on the same shores of the legendary city of Troy, but all of the dialogue comes from present-day Britain. This tactic makes the characters more reachable and human than those wisps of imagination, the gods. Giving them present-day mannerisms allows for updated commentary and an easier reading experience.

“It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they’d have Helen’s eyes.”

But the modernization didn’t work for me across the entire board. Briseis’s notice of and reaction to the unfairness of her circumstances is too modern in places to fit its story. The worst part of her slavery in The Iliad is that it is a common practice, it is the norm; though Briseis is not the only female slave whose main job is to warm some important man’s bed, she reacts to it in a way that reveals modern knowledge that such customs will be overturned, that there will be a time and place where women are closer to equals. This change made the book less of a cultural/historic learning experience and more of a modern outrage toward gender inequality, which could have been a clear enough theme through a more subtle handling of perspective.

Things do change. And if they don’t you bloody well make them.’

‘Spoken like a man.’ “

One of the biggest differences between Barker’s work and Homer’s is that The Silence of the Girls is more of a nuanced study of human character while The Iliad uses godly interference as reasoning for many outcomes. I loved the balance of gods and men in The Iliad, but to Briseis the gods are distant beings who don’t hear prayers or intervene. I missed the gods, personally, but their absence does allow for a deeper characterization. I was particularly moved by Patroclus in this version of the story, and hated Achilles with a passion I’ve never been able to summon for him before.

Which leads me to another pro/con: that Briseis’s story becomes Achilles’s almost as soon as she becomes his slave. To an extent, I liked what Barker does to control the narrative, showing the way ancient girls were silenced in greater history not just by taking their voices but every choice they could possible make:

“I’d been trying to escape not just from camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story– his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

But that was also a frustrating element for me because it made the plot predictable. I think the fact that I had just read 3/4 of The Iliad (primarily because I wanted to read this Briseis retelling), took out any surprise I might have found in the storyline. Reading The Iliad with an eye out for Briseis’s tragedies put a lot of the ideas that The Silence of the Girls explores into my mind before I read it: the horror and brutality of being pulled from one’s home, seeing one’s family killed, and being treated as an object by your enemies were all emotions I was able to pull from the plot of The Iliad and the premise of The Silence of the Girls alone, and seeing them played out over a full 300 pages didn’t change the way those concepts affected me.

And then there were a few truly baffling moments, like this one:

“Even though it made no sense, to me or to anybody else, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl.”

(Why not? Helen started a major war. The same war, in fact, that this Greek army is fighting for.)

But despite a few dissatisfactions, I did find The Silence of the Girls to be a much pleasanter reading experience than The Iliad; it’s a quick, compelling read, and I think ultimately I would recommend it in place of The Iliad,or at least, to be read before The Iliad. It’s not so much a change from the original as a fairer presentation of the traditional story. Color picture rather than the black and white classic. I think I was simply expecting too much going in to appreciate the strong simplicity Barker weaves, though I might have loved it more under other circumstances.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of the highlights for me from my BOTM choices this year. I liked it better than Madeline Miller’s Circe, the other Greek mythology retelling I’ve read in the past months, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected to be impressed. I’m more interested in finally picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles to round out my Trojan War reading experience, but I think I need a little break from Troy. I’ll read The Odyssey first, for a change of pace.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Eligible

The idea of a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice caught my attention before I had even read Jane Austen’s famous classic. Now that I’ve read both the original work and the modern translation (Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible) back to back, I’m even more enthused. Generally I love a good retelling, but the fairy tale trend is starting to bore me a little. Here, though, is a fresh rendering of social engagements, prickly personalities, family misfortune, and– of course– romance.

eligibleAbout the book: Liz Bennet is one of five daughters in a notable Cincinatti family that is quickly falling into crippling debt. The Bennet parents are eager to marry their daughters off to help both generations financially, but of course, nothing seems to be going as planned. The eldest, Jane, is more interested in being a mother than a wife, and is taking steps to start the next phase of her life without marriage. Liz, the second eldest, has the most stable job and income, but her boyfriend is already married to someone else. Mary isn’t interested in marriage at all. Kitty is single, but has her eyes set on someone her parents disapprove of, and Lydia seems to have found the perfect match, until an unexpected secret about her boyfriend comes to light. The sisters are reunited for the summer in Cincinnati following their father’s heart attack, but the drama of their love lives is only beginning. At a 4th of July barbecue, the Bennet girls meet the Bingleys and their friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy. Some of their first interactions are favorable, others decidedly not. Everything is going to change over the course of the summer, and marriage will inevitably find some of the Bennet sisters, but their relationships may look nothing like the sensible matches their parents expected for them.

“He looked, Liz thought, like a model in a local department store newspaper insert: handsome, yes, but moody in a rather preposterous and unnecessary way.”

First, I’d like to note that you can read Eligible without reading Pride and Prejudice, and find just as much enjoyment in it. You’ll even get a good sense of the classic’s plot, because Eligible is loyal to the original in many respects, despite the change in time. But I would say that if reading Pride and Prejudice (or even watching a film of it) just before picking up Eligible is a move you’re considering, you’ll probably find the most enjoyment of this retelling with Austen’s original work fresh in mind. I also believe that readers who did not like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may like Eligible more. I recommend giving it a chance.

Next, let’s look at the narration. Pride and Prejudice uses a third person narration that focuses primarily on Elizabeth’s thoughts and experiences, but does venture to note some details about the other characters’ lives that Elizabeth would not have been privy to. In Eligible, however, the narration focuses solely on Liz, except for one chapter about Jane’s life at the beginning of the novel, and a chapter of Mary’s life at the end. Eligible‘s chapters are very short, which makes it easy to keep turning pages. Both of these structural components are good choices for the novel– Liz’s thoughts pull readers in, and the short chapters are convenient for stopping and starting (or finding excuses to read just one more).

Pride and Prejudice has its humorous moments, but I laughed out loud probably half a dozen times in the first fifty pages of this novel– unusual for me. I thought knowing the characters’ personalities fairly well from the classic would take some of the entertainment out of discovering their ridiculousness in Eligible, but that was not the case. There is something even more amusing about (albeit fictional) people from the early 1800s being planted in a modern setting and let loose– though technically Eligible‘s characters are new, they are certainly based on the old and their absurdity remains intact.

” ‘He’s a lawyer in Atlanta, and he’s very active in his church,’ Mrs. Bennet said. ‘If that’s not the description of a man looking for a wife, I don’t know what is.’ “

Even more important than the humor though, is the fact that Eligible tackles some tough topics familiar in the current day and age, and Sittenfeld handles them well. There are LGBTQ+ characters and nonwhite characters. There are difficult, prejudiced characters, who are encouraged to change their minds. Liz responds to everything life (or her family) throws at her with an open mind and a willingness to help those who need it.

A little more comparing/contrasting: Liz has so much more dialogue in this book (especially with a certain tall dark and handsome man) than in P&P, which was one of the things I loved most about this updated version. Her climactic dialogue near the end of the story is filled with less apology than in P&P as well, which I was happy to see. Apologies are a good thing in healthy relationships, but here we see characters ready to move on without rehashing every offense they’d ever uttered. A plus. Alternately, while I thought Darcy’s overheard remark at the beginning of Eligible was worse than his saying in P&P that the girls in town were only tolerable, I did like him in this novel a lot earlier on. In contrast, I thought Liz was more obviously blind to the possibility that she was making mistakes in Eligible. She seems more brash in Eligible, more impulsive and outspoken about her opinions where I saw cautious reserve in P&P despite her strong opinions. Kathy de Bourgh makes a much better character in Eligible, though her character and her role in the plot is perhaps the most changed from her place in P&P. The change is apt. And Eligible‘s main strength comes from the biggest change of all– the centralization of focus on family. Each of Liz’s sisters is crucial to the tale Eligible has to tell, complete with their own morals and wonderfully distinct from each other. It’s a great dynamic, and it only improves as the book progresses.

“Time seemed, as it always does in adulthood after a particular stretch has concluded, no matter how ponderous or unpleasant the stretch was to endure, to have passed quickly indeed.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved this book. It still had the air of a classic, but was easily readable (not that Pride and Prejudice is difficult to read, but classics generally take a bit more time to parse the difference in language usage). I want to look into reading more from the Austen Project series, which features modern retellings of each of Austen’s works (though I don’t believe they’re all published yet).

Further recommendations:

  1. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice for readers who’ve enjoyed Eligible (or plan to) and haven’t yet gotten around to the original classic. Even if you’re not a classic fan normally, let me highly recommend this one to anyone who appreciates a funny romance.
  2. White Fur by Jardine Libaire has a sort of crossed plot between Romeo and Juliet and Pride and Prejudice. This one’s definitely an adult story (the romance is a bit explicit in places), but it has the same sort of hate-love at the beginning, and a problematic affection between a wealthy heir and a poor independent, neither of whose families support their relationship.

What’s next: I’m just finishing up Cate Holohan’s Lies She Told, a new release thriller (and a September Book of the Month selection) about a mystery writer whose life turns into a similar mystery. As the lines start to blur between her fictional novel and her real circumstances, everything falls apart and nothing is certain.

What’s your favorite retelling?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is a must-read for Shakespeare fans, readers who enjoy retellings, and, frankly, for fiction lovers in general. Atwood writes beautifully, and I’ve realized this is the second year in a row I’ve read one of her books in January–I sense a tradition in the making.

hag-seedAbout the book: Felix Phillips, a master of the arts, has been banished from his theater domain in Makeshiweg. His trusted co-worker has risen from beneath in order to gain a political advantage, and in lying about Felix’s desire for retirement, has also closed off any further career opportunities for the grieving man. Felix moves into a ramshackle house away from civilization, where he can pretend his dead daughter is lively and present once more. He accepts a teaching position at nearby Fletcher Prison and uses the literacy program there to teach convicts how to properly read and perform Shakespeare plays, all the while dreaming and planning his revenge on the man who disrupted his prestigious career.An opportunity presents itself for Felix to make his vengeful move from inside the prison, and Felix finally decides to direct the play that had been interrupted by his ousting–The Tempest.

“…didn’t the best art have desperation at its core? Wasn’t it always a challenge to Death? A defiant middle finger on the edge of the abyss?”

Like Shakespeare’s original play, Atwood’s Hag-Seed features a sort of play within a play, a multi-layered scheme for revenge with myriad parallels between the play itself, the convicts’ interpretation of the play, and the actual events of the novel that unfold with many similarities to the play’s plot. None of it, however, would work without the character who ties all of the threads together–the talented and devious Felix Phillips.

“Foolish lads, thinks Felix: never trust a professional ham.”

The characterization in this book is great. Some of the names are obviously similar to their Tempest counterparts, but others reveal comparable personalities through their mannerisms and attitudes, allowing the reader some easy connections, and some food for further thought even after the final page has been turned. Even before Felix shows his hand, however, he’s a uniquely addictive character. I couldn’t put this book down, and it wasn’t because of the scintillating plot. From the very beginning, Felix captures the reader’s attention with despair, cunning, sheer force, and sometimes even humor:

“His last stop is at a women’s swimwear boutique. ‘I’d like a bathing cap,’ he says to the elegant middle-aged woman who’s presiding. ‘Blue, if you have one.’ ‘For your wife?’ says the woman, smiling. ‘Going on a cruise?’ Felix is tempted to tell her it’s for a convicted criminal inside a prison who’s playing the part of a magic flying blue alien, but he thinks better of it.”

In addition to the great plot and the Tempest comparison intrigue, Atwood’s writing style is simply irresistible. She digs to the core of every emotion, bringing her world to life with well-crafted opinions unique to distinct personas, and juggles every detail with the practiced maneuvers of a true jester. There are very few women in this book, but the women that are present are arguably the most important characters (alongside Felix), and they are certainly represented well. The rather helpless Miranda of Shakespeare’s Tempest is a whirlwind force shared by two characters in Hag-Seed who make her one of the strongest persons of Atwood’s cast. The original Miranda is a target that needs protecting, but this new Miranda is all but invincible–seeing as one of the characters who represents her is already dead, and the other is a powerful actress who could probably kill any man who offends her with her ninja dance moves. Despite the male-heavy plot of the Tempest, the female voice is certainly not overlooked in Hag-Seed.

“There are so many rejections, so many disappointments, so many failures. You need a heart of iron, a skin of steel, the willpower of a tiger, and more of these as a woman.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. You don’t need to read The Tempest before this book; there is quite a bit of description about the nature of the characters and the important plot points woven into the book, and there are also a few pages at the end of the book that condense the story of the play into a bite-sized piece to make sense of anything you missed–or you can read it before diving into the rest of the story, now that you know it’s there. I think the story is immersive in its own right, but truly, in the end I think it’s much more rewarding to read following the original play. It’s fun to be able to compare your interpretations of the play and its pawns to the way it is presented in this book, which would be difficult to do if you’re only discovering the play for the first time within this transformed, modern version of it. Atwood notes differences in how the play has been performed, takes introspective looks at each of the main characters, and even discusses some of Shakespeare’s tactics at a logistic level, which are details that made me feel as though I were discussing my own thoughts on the play with someone else. I enjoyed that experience, and I don’t think I would’ve picked up on as many of the interesting opinions if I hadn’t already been familiar with the original Tempest.

Further recommendations:

  1. Shakespeare’s The Tempest, obviously, would make a good choice for Hag-Seed fans, or even potential Hag-Seed readers. Reading it before the play would be the best choice, perhaps, but I’m thinking I might read it again now that I’ve finished it. It’s a great story for anyone who’s interested in plays–especially magical ones.
  2. The Heart Goes Last is another favorite Margaret Atwood read of mine that takes place partially in a prison. This one’s a dystopian in which a whole community is formed by a group of people who are willing to jumpstart their economy on a small, private level by spending 6 months of every year in prison voluntarily. Of course, when this system is threatened with corruption, all hell breaks loose.
  3. Hag-Seed is a novel about revenge. If that’s your thing, you should also read Michael Punke’s The Revenant. If you’ve seen the movie and think the book isn’t worth your time, think again. The movie and the book are different stories, and no one has ever been so intent on revenge as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, novel version.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading the final book in Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, The Raven King. I’m sad to be saying goodbye to this YA supernatural series, but it’s been a scintillating journey and I love where this one ended. Stay tuned to find out whether this last book about Blue and her raven boys is as irresistible as the first three!

Which great books are you reading this January?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant