Monday, December 02, 2019

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid's Metamorphoses for the #MeToo era

“The act of art is metamorphosis,” pronounces one woman in this eclectic collection, in which MacLaughlin daringly fashions a new artistic work that transforms female characters from Ovid’s Metamorphoses into the heroes (or anti-heroes) of their own stories.

While they take a feminist slant, similar to that in Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018), the 34 accounts in this multi-voiced mosaic, which range from a couple of pages to much longer, creatively diverge in approach and style. Some stories dazzle with their poetic eloquence, while others, written in slangy contemporary English, offer short, punchy lines and timeless themes.

Baucis, an elderly woman, tells a moving tale of enduring love and the gods’ power and gratitude, while a therapy-session dialogue ideally suits Myrrha’s disturbing story of her son’s conception. Medusa reveals the true tragedy of her plight, and in “Sibyl,” MacLaughlin converts the traditional tale into a paean to older women’s wisdom.

Many women in Ovid’s poems suffer unwanted male attention or sexual violence and find themselves silenced after being changed into animals, trees, or something else, but here they express their sorrow, fear, and rage. The free mingling of ancient characters with elements of workaday modern life won’t please everyone, but open-minded readers should applaud the virtuosity and find much worth discovering in these memorable reinterpretations.

Nina MacLaughlin's Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung was published by FSG on November 19th. I wrote this review for Booklist's October 1st issue, and it's the latest in a growing string of re-interpreted myths that I've been assigned to cover for that publication, including Miller's Circe as mentioned above, Maria Dahvana Headley's The Mere Wife (which re-imagines Beowulf in the suburbs; stunningly good, but not historical fiction), Kamila Shamsie's award-winning Home Fire (also excellent, but not HF).  With its mix of mythical and modern settings, whether you'd call Wake, Siren historical fiction is also up for debate as well, but it's worth reading, even if you don't think you're interested in shorter pieces.