How much do we know about Hera, wife of Zeus and queen of the gods in ancient Greek myth? If we know her at all, it’s probably best as the most cheated-on of all divinities. Unable to hold her powerful “Lord of the Thunderbolt” husband accountable, she takes out her anger on the various nymphs and mortal women he dallies with and, quite often, their offspring as well (e.g. Hercules, or Heracles as he’s known in Greek — ironically, the name means “glory of Hera”). She also helps bring about the downfall of the great city of Troy after Prince Paris snubs her in the famous beauty contest, the prize being an apple labeled “For the Fairest.” These myths paint her as a shrewish rage-a-holic, the ancient equivalent of the modern-day “Karen.”
Yet in her novel Ithaca, Claire North gives us a very different Hera, a Queen and a champion of Queens. Through her all-knowing eyes we watch Penelope, Queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus, cope with the encroachment of grasping, quarrelsome men eager to win her hand, along with an invasion of “pirates.” To deal with the pirates — in reality the henchmen of Andraemon, the most vicious of the suitors — she oversees the training of the women of her island into an effective fighting force. As if that were not enough to handle, she must also play host to the children of the recently murdered King Agamemnon, the slightly-out-of-his-depth Orestes and the cold, vengeful Elektra, who believe that Clytemnestra, their mother and Agamemnon’s murderer, is hiding on Ithaca (They’re right.) Hera herself plays little active role in the proceedings, but North’s decision to tell the story from her perspective proves a stroke of genius. With her sharp, wry, ultimately sympathetic voice, the queen of the gods becomes an embodiment for our rooting interest in Penelope, the women who serve her, and even Clytemnestra. Plus, I love her sense of humor. Hoot-bleeping-hoot.
If Ithaca has a fault, it might be a lack of sympathetic male representation; while this lack makes narrative sense, I can see how it might be off-putting for some readers, as the same situation would bother me if the genders were reversed. Men in this story range from despicable abusers (e.g. Andraemon) to neurotic would-be heroes (e.g. Odysseus’ son Telemachus), all of them having one trait in common: a deep and unbridled contempt for women, the natural result of the misogynistic culture in which they have been raised. Kenamon, the only male visitor to Ithaca to treat Penelope with any respect, hails from Egypt, a society far more enlightened where gender roles are concerned; he is painted sympathetically, but his role is too small to offset the impression of the male characters in general as arrogant, violent misogynists. The worst thing about them, for me, is how predictable they are. In any given situation, they will choose the cruelest, most hurtful course available to them. In many ways, Telemachus is the cruelest, since he’s the only one for whom Penelope actually cares and therefore in the position to hurt her the most deeply. Throughout the story, Penelope, a woman of wit, resourcefulness, and courage, shows herself to be up to every challenge until the end, which shows her broken by the actions of her unloving son. (For a kinder Telemachus, give Madeline Miller’s Circe a look. So many brilliant authors these days are turning their hands to fascinating feminist retellings of the old myths, and it makes me glad all over.)
Yet the menfolk create chaos, the driving force of this narrative are the bonds between women, some strong, some tenuous, some hostile. Hera observes the friendships forged by the martial training with delight; she’s far less patient with those women who withhold support from their sisters (e.g. Telemachus’ nanny Eurycleia, a poster child for internalized misogyny). Hera’s own complicated relationships with her own stepdaughters, goddesses Athena and Artemis, also come into play, a good portion of loathing with a welcome dash of understanding and even winking admiration. Best of all, each woman in this network of relationships, even with the smallest page time, is an interesting and complex figure who could easily be the heroine of her own story.
Five out of five stars.