Atalanta: A Novel
- By Jennifer Saint
- Flatiron Books
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
- May 30, 2023
The Argonauts’ quest is retold through the eyes of a female warrior, with mixed results.
Greek mythology is having a moment, or another of its many moments over the centuries. Jennifer Saint’s Atalanta joins the proliferating list of longform, novelized myths told from the fresh narrative perspective of women.
Jason’s tragic quest for the Golden Fleece has been re-imagined many times since Irish poet Padraic Colum won the Newbery Medal in 1922 for The Golden Fleece and the Heroes Who Lived before Achilles and Robert Graves penned The Golden Fleece (1944). Now, Saint tells the same story from the point of view of Atalanta, the only female warrior among the Argonauts. (Recently, classicist and historical novelist Emily Hauser also featured Atalanta’s voice in For the Winner, the second book in that author’s Golden Apple trilogy.)
Saint brings both scholarship and a love of literature to her work here. She pursued classical studies at King’s College, London, where she is now a visiting research fellow, taught English and creative writing for several years, and is the author of two prior classics-inspired novels, Ariadne (2021) and Elektra (2022).
Atalanta’s story of a woman’s strength and valor, the cost of her success as a warrior, and of being a mortal, seems tailor-made for a feminist retelling. If history is written by the winners, Atalanta’s herstory is one of both winning and losing.
Atalanta’s birth disappointed her father; he had hoped for a male heir to his throne. He abandoned his infant daughter to starve on a mountainside. Discovered and raised by a she-bear, the girl survived and thrived among cubs and grew up to become the favored protégé of Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt. Strong, fleet, and an outstanding archer, Atalanta lived an idyllic woodland life among Artemis’ chaste community of nymphs at ease with the goddess’ prohibition of marriage.
But Artemis eventually commands her to leave and represent the goddess among Jason’s warriors. Reluctantly, Atalanta obeys and must fight her way aboard to convince Jason she is up to the task. Although Atalanta continues to prove herself to the other Argonauts, excelling both at the oars and in battle, she remains unwelcome and suspect among most of the crew — except for one man, Meleager.
Secretly, mutual respect develops into an illicit relationship that becomes the direst peril Atalanta encounters on the quest for the Golden Fleece. The consequences of her transgression with Meleager will ultimately transform her from Artemis’ favorite to outcast.
Saint positions Atalanta and her high-stakes dilemma front and center against the backdrop of Jason’s dangerous voyage. She provides vivid descriptions of Atalanta as a warrior, of her backbreaking, painful work rowing the vessel, as well as of her thrilling and excruciating foot races, wrestling matches, and archery competitions. Though action-packed and dramatic, the sheer number of these episodes becomes tedious; the author may hew too closely and too inclusively to the original epic.
A greater challenge is fully engaging readers with Atalanta herself. She is fleet of foot indeed, but also emotionally elusive — not just for Meleager but for us. Her ambivalence — he is married, she is breaking her vow to Artemis — as she falls into the relationship is believable and relatable. She doesn’t want to harm another woman; she risks losing her protected status with Artemis; and she jeopardizes her core identity as independent and self-sufficient. Yet on the page, the turmoil is muted and tamped down.
The author might have further explored her heroine’s contradictory strength and vulnerability, her mixed feelings and yearnings — the final human cost of both her success as a warrior and her surrender to mortal passion and attachment. Unfortunately, Saint holds back, perhaps being true to her understanding of how and whether introspection and insight would’ve been part of Atalanta’s character and culture. But this decision leaves the reader disappointed.
Another challenge here (for author and reader alike) is language. Since Greek myths come out of an oral, aural tradition, the cadence and tone of the text in any updated version remain key. How to be true to an author’s new vision while sustaining a connection to the old? Saint comes closest to achieving an evocative classical quality in her battle scenes and with descriptions of nature:
“The scent from the jasmine…spilled out on the breeze, the delicate star-shaped flowers opening to the darkness.”
However, some expository passages become didactic, and occasional anachronisms like “jogging” jar the reader. Certainly, retelling a classic myth via a fresh viewpoint requires fresh language created by — and for — the contemporary author’s ear. But that language must still sing on the page, which is one of the more consistent strengths of Madeleine Miller’s Circe, for example, to which Saint’s books have been compared.
Despite my regret that the author did not go a little farther and deeper, and my reservations about language notwithstanding, Atalanta is a well-imagined reinvention of a classic myth. Saint’s novel will give solo summer readers pleasure and should provide a book group plentiful avenues for discussion.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. Her novel Frieda’s Song was a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Award, Historical Fiction. Her column, “Girl Writing,” appears in the Independent bi-monthly. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.