This is a retelling of the myth of Medea, with her depiction differing greatly from most others, in that she is not a jealous mad woman that does not even shrink back from killing her own children to get revenge, but a proud outsider who gets caught up in a political battle and is made the scapegoat for any evil that befalls the city of Corinth.
In my last year of secondary school, I read this as one of a few adaptations of the myth of Medea for a paper I wanted to write. After I had finished reading, my teacher asked me which book I had liked the most, and she was kind of surprised when I said this one. Some of the others were more famous, like the play by Euripides, or by more acclaimed authors, like Franz Grillparzer, but somehow, this was the one that spoke to me the most. Now, after re-reading, I’m quite sure that my admiration of it is even greater, because I don’t think I could have quite grasped all the nuances and layers back then.
It is a short book but there is so much to unpack because the issues Wolf touches on are manifold. At its core, it is a parable for our modern times where the veneer of civilisation is still very thin, and people turn to easy solutions and to blaming those who are different when things go wrong, where sexism and racism are only barely hidden, and leaders often do not care about the damage they inflict, as long as they themselves can keep their power. Medea and her people, as well as others, are immigrants in a foreign land and they are not accepted but seen as primitive or barbaric, and they live segregated on the outskirts of the city and try to remain invisible, so as to not get into trouble. The influence of religion is strong, and many people are willing to do horrific things in its name, while others abuse it to further their own agendas.
On top of that, every chapter is narrated by a different character which means that in the beginning, vital information is missing and events become clearer only gradually. This makes some parts as exciting as a thriller, for instance, when the terrible secret which is hidden beneath the royal palace is finally revealed in its entirety. Also, the different points of view of certain events and the motivations of the different characters enrich the story immensely because it makes the protagonists multifaceted and dynamic.
Medea herself is an incredibly strong but relatable woman, and although her fate is known from the outset, it is still gut-wrenching when it happens. One chapter is prefaced by this quote by Cato the Elder:
Suffer women once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors.
This is exactly what those in power see when they look at Medea who thinks that the women in Corinth are behaving like pets, and who is not only proud and independent but also a competent healer and a respected priestess. She is a threat from the beginning, she scares them, and when she learns the terrible secret of Corinth, she has to be removed at all cost, of which she is aware, and her impotence and despair in the face of inevitable defeat are a tangible thing.
Generally, there is a feeling of dread threaded through the whole story because the ending is set in stone, and even the characters are not oblivious to the oncoming disaster. After all, it is still a Greek tragedy, so nobody can escape unscathed. There is also quite a high level of blood and gore in the book, for example in the depiction of blood sacrifices and other religious rituals, which makes for an archaic and rather grim atmosphere to boot.
I was a little afraid that I wouldn’t like it as much after so many years, or that I had glorified it in my mind, so I’m really glad that this wasn’t the case. I feel like the life experience I have gained in the interim makes me appreciate it even more. However, one thing that I felt about the book back then hasn’t changed at all, and that is the conviction that this book does justice to a female character that historically has been vilified far too often and for all the wrong reasons.
CBR11 Bingo: Back to School