Review copy provided by the agent.
For years I've loved the historical novels of Mary Renault, and for almost as many years I've longed for versions of them that centered on women. The apparent effortlessness of the world-building in Renault's rich recreations of Classical Greece is matched only by the elegance of her prose and the fascinating obliquity of her characterization; she is one of English's great masters of textual negative space. In her books, what isn't said or what's almost said is as significant as what is. Her major flaw as a writer -- as great, unfortunately, as any of her virtues -- is her extraordinary misogyny. Most of her early contemporary novels from the 1930s and 1940s are unsettling and subversive takes on the "nurse romance": the work is hard if sometimes worthwhile; the hospitals are full of internal politicking and bullying, sexual and otherwise; there is an uneasy struggle with sexuality and Platonism, in which erotic love appears (as it would in the historical novels) as a degradation from a purer and unconsummated affection. Women are sometimes goddesses and sometimes monsters and occasionally helpmeets to male geniuses; they can never hope to match male ambition or accomplishment. Male and female homosexuality are both depicted sympathetically, but the relationships between men always trump the relationships between men and women, as the relationships between men and women always trump the relationships between women; many critics have described The Friendly Young Ladies/The Middle Mists
as an account of a lesbian couple, a reading which unfortunately ignores that the majority of the book concerns the relationship between one of the women and her male mentor/hero/crush. He is, of course, a better a writer than she could ever hope to be. On the whole, I prefer the historicals, where women are more or less invisible.
So I can't be particularly objective about Katharine Beutner's first novel, Alcestis,
in which the ideal wife of Greek myth, who loves her husband so much she agrees to take his die in his place, becomes the lover of Persephone for the three days she dwells as a shade in the Underworld. It is so exactly what I have always wanted some book to be.
In Beutner's retelling, Alcestis has been familiar with death since birth, and yet its sting never grows less: her mother dies giving birth to her, her beloved elder sister dies in childhood, her stepmother risks death with every pregnancy, her brothers risk death with every journey. Life is a series of losses, even if not fatal ones: another sister is traded off in marriage, never to be seen again, a future Alcestis knows awaits her. All that Alcestis can keep is her secrets, and even those are a kind of lack, a forced hiding from power: "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." (p. 37) Alcestis sees, sometimes, brief chances to escape the limitations or fulfill the losses of her life: the love of her kind and handsome husband Admetus, the seduction by glorious Persephone, the chance to meet again with her sister Hippothoe in the lands of the dead. But these all prove illusory, the gods selfish and violent beyond human understanding, and death a chasm that can't be crossed even by the dead.
The book is beautifully and thoroughly centered in women's experiences, with particular attention to the bonds between women: between sisters, between daughters and mothers and stepdaughters and stepmothers, and between mortal women and immortal goddesses. Both the rich and rivalrous bond between Alcestis and her sister Pisidice and the strong and sweet bond between Alcestis and her sister Hippothoe are echoed in various ways in Alcestis' relationship with Persephone; Alcestis can see her future in her stepmother's treatment, in her husband's fearful and enthralled love of the god Apollo. She is most like and most unlike Persephone, who rules in Hell the way no human woman rules in Greece; except, perhaps, in moments of desire or strength of will, and even those human women pay for in the end, when women's strength is taken as the weakness and shame of men.
I've focused on what Adrienne Rich would call the continuum of lesbian existence in the book (cf. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence"), but Alcestis
also explores a gorgeous sexual fluidity: Alcestis' desire for Admetus is real, perhaps realer than any other connection they have with each other. If it's not unaffected by their fears and their social roles, it is at least something like a feast of misrule, where they can reverse the usual rules if not escape them.
If I have any complaint, it's that the overall tone of the book is so cool. Alcestis is so predisposed to mourning that it sometimes feels like loss cannot actually touch her, as if all her emotions are separated from her by a layer of grey cotton or the knowledge of death. But it's hard to call that a flaw when it may very well be deliberate; this is a tale, after all, told from beyond the Styx.