If you read a lot of Greek myths, or if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you might start to notice a number of similar things going on, specifically mortals having various kinds of interactions with gods and ending up getting changed into something else either to escape the god’s attention or to be punished for the way they responded to the gods. The stories are always told from the point of view of the gods, so it was only a matter of time before someone flipped the narratives to tell these stories from the point of view of the mortals. We are very lucky that this someone was Nina Maclaughlin, whose new book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung is a terrific read, chilling and moving, eye-opening and poetic, true to the spirit of the original myths and still infused with a modern sensibility.
I have to confess that I hadn’t encountered all the characters in this book before; there are a few whose stories were unfamiliar to me, despite early exposure to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but that didn’t make those stories any less fascinating (and when you get the general sense of how gods and mortals interact in these myths, you can guess how things are going to turn out even if you’re not familiar with these particular characters). There are also many of the more familiar characters, such as Arachne and Daphne and Eurydice. If you’re wondering whether you could “get” the stories without knowing all the myths, the answer (as usual with retellings) is yes. Of course, you get more out of the story if you’re familiar with the underlying myth, but trust me, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on in most of the stories even if you’ve never heard of these characters before.
You should be warned, though: these are not fun stories to read. Rape is a frequent element, as the gods (usually Zeus and Apollo) tend not to take “no” for an answer, and Maclaughlin doesn’t downplay the pain and trauma of rape just because it’s a god doing it. You are always in the point of view, usually first person, of the mortal character, and the characters’ reactions vary as any human being’s reactions would, from terror to rage. The transformations from human to animal or from human to plant or inanimate object are depicted vividly and there is graphic violence in some of the stories, including frequent f-bombs.
If you’re strong enough to face so much pain and anger, though, you’re in for a revelatory experience, and not all of the stories end sadly (spoiler alert: most of them do). One of the most surprising was the story of Eurydice (whose story with Orpheus is one of the backbones of the Broadway musical, Hadestown), one of the last stories in the book, and one I highly recommend, even if you don’t read all the stories (though of course you should). The protagonists differ from each other and from the characters on whom they’re based, but they’re all fascinating, their voices vivid and their predicaments painfully real.
Whether or not you’re familiar with the original myths, you should definitely check out Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung for an enthralling and somewhat terrifying view of relations between gods and mortals.