With Stone Blind, Natalie Haynes (A Thousand Ships; Pandora's Jar) brings her authoritative expertise in Greek myths to bear on Medusa, whose story is fresh and surprising in this telling. Haynes is both a scholar of the classics and a stand-up comic, and that combination is brilliantly evident in this sardonic, darkly funny adaptation.
Stone Blind combines several threads familiar to fans of Greek mythology, although readers need no previous knowledge to follow along. Zeus, king of the gods on Olympus, philanders and bickers with his wife, Hera; this narrative will witness Athene's birth and a battle between gods and giants, among other Olympian events. Medusa is delivered as an infant mortal to the two elder Gorgons who will be her sisters--in this version, they are monsters only in their unusual appearance, and they care for their fragile mortal sister with great tenderness. As a young woman, Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athene's temple. The goddess is so offended by this sacrilege that she punishes the victim, replacing Medusa's hair with snakes and bestowing her most famous attribute: the ability to turn any living creature to stone by eye contact. In a third thread, the demigod Perseus comes of age as a bumbling incompetent: self-serving, lazy, whining, unnecessarily violent. And Andromeda, legendary beauty and princess of Ethiopia, is cursed to death by her mother Cassiope's hubris.
These threads come together in complex ways when gods are offended and angered and play out their dramas with mortal pawns. Traditional storytelling has cast Perseus as a hero and Medusa as a monster, but Haynes does not concur: "The hero isn't the one who's kind or brave or loyal. Sometimes--not always, but sometimes--he is monstrous. And the monster? Who is she?"
"Who decides what is a monster?" Medusa's sister asks. To which Medusa responds: "I don't know.... Men, I suppose."
Haynes's genius lies not only in her subtle recasting of this story--with an emphasis on who assigns roles and draws conclusions--but in her dryly scathing humor. Her gods are (even more than usual) immature, selfish and often silly. Athene is "delighted with herself" for the simplest of observations about humanity; she burst forth from Zeus's head fully formed, but not necessarily with the emotional maturity or world knowledge her physical perfection would imply. Poseidon's bluster and Zeus's carelessness of his children are exaggerated. Perseus is a dolt, impervious to learning the lessons of his (mis)adventures. Haynes writes in many voices: those of olive trees, Medusa's snakes-for-hair, a crow, the gods and mortals that make up this twisting tale. A surprising ending caps off her truly delightful and novel version of a very old story. --Julia Kastner, librarian and blogger at pagesofjulia
Shelf Talker: Natalie Haynes splendidly showcases classical scholarship, witty humor and an appreciation for nuance in this reframing of the story of Medusa.