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Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

Here it is, the first post based on a BookTok recommendation. It was only a matter of time (on the subject, apologies for the timing of this post I have been focusing on finalising masters applications lately and it has been taking up my time - will be back to more regular posting soon).


Ariadne wasn't the first recommendation I've taken from TikTok, but it was definitely the first successful one. When I visited Bath last summer I searched high and low for Jenkins Reid's The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and was so disappointed to miss out on my self-indulgent 'it' girl moment: wandering into a book shop in a beautiful, unfamiliar town and walking out with a pretty paperback. But it wasn't there. When I did come to read it though, I was disappointed further. I know you're not supposed to treat social media as gospel, but before Ariadne the trust I had in BookTok had been broken. All of the 10/10 reviews and all of the hype for both Reid's novel and E. Lockhart's We Were Liars were quite misleading for me. Lockhart's novel made me take up a habit I'd never had before as a slow reader - I skipped pages. A lot. The line-breaking writing style made sense logically, likely a realisation of the narrator's broken memory after her mysterious accident, but it was so excessive. The dialogue felt so unnatural and emotions so odd and misplaced that it began to feel like reading wattpad fiction. However, I did come to realise, heartbreakingly, that I just might not be as into YA as I have been in the past.


Opening up Ariadne, a small part of me was quietly expecting the worst. But a change of genre felt right, which this certainly was, and I did somewhat manage to have my 'it' girl moment with this one when I walked into my local Waterstones. The hardback version was very alluring; the intricate cover design and the stunning deep blue and gold led me to a questionable financial decision, (considering how many new books were waiting patiently on my shelf to be read).


Jennifer Saint's beautiful novel is a retelling of an Ancient Greek tale, Theseus and the Minotaur, (with a few other familiar tales in there too) and looks to honour the original myth quite faithfully, rich with epic voyage, romance and punishment, whilst shifting the balance towards the female voices that were shunted to the background. Ultimately, it is Ariadne's story. Reclaimed.


Theseus and the Minotaur statue, greek mythology
Theseus and the Minotaur statue (1782), taken at V&A museum

I have never really pursued an interest in Ancient Greece and Greek mythology (other than really enjoying the Percy Jackson series in school) but this novel has really opened my eyes to it. Halfway through reading Ariadne I visited the Science Museum and impulsively bought tickets to the Ancient Greeks exhibition. It was incredibly immersive, the enchanting sounds of auloi (the ancient "double flute") rippled through the room, mingled with the voices of engineers and historians discussing ancient ships, the muses—in fact, as you walk in, an impressive projection-mapped sarcophagus with the nine muses carved into the side, seemingly animated, stands in front of you. A sight to behold. The recovered statue of Hermes was also one of a few useful visuals which helped me to imagine Ariadne's world. The trip felt perfectly-timed.


(A trip that was not so perfectly-timed was my attempt to visit the British museum one day last week with the sole purpose of getting a picture of their Ariadne statue. It turned out that I picked the two week window where the gallery it resided in was having some work done. So enjoy various statues of men instead. Totally not the angle I was going for. Grr.)


Hermes statue at the Science Museum
Hermes statue (100–50 BCE), taken at the Science museum (and warped me looking like a Mr Men character)

The story goes that Ariadne, Princess of Crete, daughter to cruel King Minos and sister to the menacing Minotaur, assists a hero, Theseus, in defeating the Minotaur in a show of love. However like many of the women before her, she suffers consequences. We witness Ariadne's life unfold from here from her own perspective, and as she bears witness to the shadowed stories of other female figures in Greek mythology.


Although it continues the current trend for Greek mythology retellings, the story comes across as being truly about sisterhood. There is a point in the novel when we start to experience the events through both Ariadne's and Phaedra's (her younger sister) perspectives. Bitterly, it is the moment when the sisters are ripped apart from one another. The splitting up of the narrative communicates, where words might fail, how brutal and unnatural it is that the trajectories of their lives never quite line up again and how permanently their lives are stained by the actions of men. Their relationship is so strong at the beginning that it feels almost as though both their destinies are overwritten; the novel's title only names Ariadne, but it feels to be a story almost as much about Phaedra.


That is not to say that the words *do* fail, although some may disagree. After finishing the novel, I read some reviewers describing her prose as awkwardly formal, intended for a sense of antiquity but failing, but I could not disagree more. Having had some particularly tough battles with books recently, labouring over the words just to finish the book and conquer them, Saint's writing felt particularly satisfying - like gliding through water. Saint's ability to adapt classical, lyrical prose into a simpler and more direct form, without losing the richness of meaning was enjoyable throughout. Something you'll have to go experience for yourself if you choose to read it.


Ariadne is treated like the missing jigsaw piece. The shadow to the original tale, which went unseen. And this also has a literal manifestation in the novel. Where women in the story were previously left in the dark, Saint uses metaphor to associate women, and their contributions to humanity, with light. This occurs a few times. When Ariadne gives birth, she describes how she 'saw the women of the world' and felt that 'we surged in synchrony with one another. Like a vast constellation of stars pinpricking the night sky, I could feel us all strive together to each bring new sparks of light into the universe.' While Ariadne and Phaedra are separated by the narrative, the sense of sisterhood remains. Although women suffer in greek mythology, burning and perhaps isolated like stars, their power is represented here in the 'light' or goodness they produce for the benefit of the universe. The epilogue also continues this metaphor, ending the novel neatly with an incredibly moving section and an encouraging tone which was perhaps needed in the face of all the depressing female suffering that this book highlighted again. However, I won't divulge for the sake of keeping this relatively spoiler-free.


Saint fills in the gaps. Phaedra says that 'whilst [Theseus] wandered the world in search of excitement, I had been here watching and waiting.' The claustrophobic realities of being a woman in Greek mythology are felt by heavily by Phaedra, describing how her ‘pregnancy passed like a nightmare,’ and that she ‘felt trapped under the weight of obligation, drudgery and exhaustion.’ However, Theseus requires an heir. I particularly enjoyed Saint's deliberate leaning away from tropes about perfect womanhood that likely permeated tales such as these—in this example, a fundamental desire to birth babies. Phaedra's experience is less of an idyllic dream and instead, a nightmare. Although, I liked that at the same time pregnancy is recognised as a pain which unites women (as in the light metaphor just mentioned), and in another sense, for some, can be very positive.


The men, particularly immortal men, who appear in the novel are driven by their egos, by their lust for power or just ... their lust, and treat women as collateral damage. Sometimes women are treated as chess pieces, used to bargain or to manipulate, like Phaedra's enforced marriage, a 'favour' to Athens in the air of political goodwill. Most of all, they are left with the blame and the punishment after men act as they please.


'And like a thousand women before me, I would pay the price of what we had done together.'

Most of all, it is sometimes quite hard to believe that it is the author's debut novel. The story is made skilfully simple and the characters so well-woven, while the modern feminist twist always feels delicate, honest and just engaging, rather than a didactic overload. It neatly slots into the original story and is such an interesting read as a result. Especially as it feels so accessible for those with different reading tastes, I would really recommend Ariadne.


I've heard that if I enjoyed Jennifer Saint then I should read Madeline Miller, although I am aware her books are BookTok favourites. So please let me know—if you've read her—if trusting TikTok again is a good idea!

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