Wake, Siren

  • By Nina MacLaughlin
  • FSG Originals
  • 352 pp.

The women of the Metamorphoses reclaim their stories.

Wake, Siren

Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung plays across the mind like a haunting melody. Employing sharp, lyrical prose, the book mirrors Ovid’s original 1st-century Metaphorphoses only in that it, too, is a novel-length collection of intertwined, poetic stories based on the same myths. Each chapter in Wake, Siren allows a woman (Medusa, Eurydice, etc.) dismissed in the original to now narrate her own tale.

While Metamorphoses occasionally acknowledges the horrors its female characters face — including Callisto’s rape and Diana’s subsequent rejection of her — Ovid’s women are mute. Callisto’s thoughts are absent; she is acted upon, rather than acting. This infuriating objectification repeats throughout the epic.

In Wake, Siren, women rupture this imposed silence, barreling out from the shadows, unapologetic and irreverent. The author splashes the pages with Callisto’s sense of betrayal: her terror as Jupiter rapes her, then her horror when both her beloved mentor and rapist’s wife blame her. Even after Juno cruelly changes her into a constellation, Callisto voices her fury, establishing solidarity with other victims: “I am not invisible…[t]here are so many other stars, all of us burning.”

MacLaughlin also unleashes Arachne’s vengeance, morphing Ovid’s two-dimensional caricature into a fleshed-out being:    

“I have babies…and how many babies will my babies’ babies’ babies have? Oh, more than you can count. We will be so many. And we will keep coming. More and more together. We find our way. We’re doing it right now. Do you know? Who should fear the future? You.”

Couched in seductive prose, Wake, Siren wages war against those who would strip women of the rights to their own stories. This is not merely a retelling of Ovid; it is a triumph of women reclaiming their voices.

Reflecting Ovid’s style, MacLaughlin injects modern-day slang into her work. Characters use contemporary speech patterns (“We’ve got your back”), detaching these myths from antiquity and situating them firmly in modernity. Each retelling causes agitation and anxiety as the author scrutinizes women’s low status in the past and, lamentably, the present.

Unlike Metamorphoses, MacLaughlin’s epic is broken into short vignettes, with each chapter focusing on one narrator. It creates a space where female characters are able to be utterly, unapologetically human. These “gynocentric resingings,” to use the author’s term, allow readers to indulge in a side of the myths that academia and the literary world have ignored or dismissed. Yet, the fight for women’s equality continues beyond its pages. Wake, Siren stomps onto the battlefield, teeth bared.  

The vignettes are intertwined, building upon one another. Each story is unique yet dishearteningly the same. This “fiction” mirrors societal persecution and repression of women, a perpetual cycle of ingrained fear perpetrated by men and even other women: “Is it punishing to be a woman? It is. It will continue to be,” MacLaughlin writes.

But she not only delves into women’s daily fears, she also provides solutions:

“Like you can’t take a walk without some guy inserting himself into your day. Into your mindspace or your spacespace. Like it’s theirs to own…some days that smile for me, sugar can just dissolve…Some days it’s not just noise and it sticks and echoes in the cave of your mind…[making] you wonder in a very real way: Am I about to be killed?...Sex and dread and threat. Fuck. It’s all too much sometimes. That’s why it’s good to have sisters…to have a team…We’ve got you sis. We’ve got your back.”

As are Arachne’s previously mentioned offspring, these thoughts are revolutionary. One potent idea for social change, for equality, can multiply over and over, across generations. One voice is a whisper; millions are a roar.

Wake, Siren encourages women to find our battle cries together in a centuries-old fight. Only then will we stop hearing words like Callisto’s: “I stay and burn and will stay and burn and my fire roars, but no one can hear it.” Instead, we must give voice to empowered women’s words: “I can hear laughter in my mind. All the women laughing. Just like the most righteous, untamed, victorious laughter.”

[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]

Fatima Taha is working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Maryland while also teaching English writing and literature. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her novel. She loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.

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