Author Madeline Miller is often credited with the recent surge of interest in fictional stories based on retellings and reimaginings of Greek mythology within the world of publishing, thanks to her bestselling novels Circe and The Song of Achilles.(Both of which are, by the way, excellent.) But it should also be noted that Natalie Haynes has been out here doing fantastic things in this particular sub-genre of historical fiction for just as long—and in a completely different way.
Her stories are told using an expansive cast of multiple POV characters and from an explicitly feminist perspective, allowing famous figures like Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy, Andromache, Penelope, Hecuba, Antigone, and Cassandra a chance to speak for themselves and to take center stage in their own stories. (Her A Thousand Ships explicitly frames itself as a recounting of the Trojan War from the perspective of the women it impacted.) That Haynes would eventually turn her eye to Medusa, one of the most famously monstrous women in all of mythology feels like a natural next step for her as a writer, and her latest effort, Stone Blind is both surprising and thoroughly compelling, a retelling that will likely make anyone who reads it reexamine their own assumptions about not just the original myth, but the ways history likes to tell stories about women generally.
The story of Perseus and Medusa is one of the most well-known in all of mythology, the tale of a dangerous woman with snakes for hair who can turn anyone who looks into her eyes into stone. She is beheaded by the hero Perseus, who is sent on a quest to bring back the head of a Gorgon to save his mother from an undesirable marriage. With some help from a variety of tools provided by the gods, Perseus uses a shield to avoid looking directly at the supposed monster and then cuts her head off, ultimately using it to turn all his enemies to stone upon his return home. Medusa is given very little perspective or agency in this story, and her life is generally presented as less interesting than the fact of her death and all the things Perseus can now do with a relic of her body.
Stone Blind does its best to change that, reframing Medusa’s story as one of a young woman deeply wronged by a patriarchal society more interested in propping up the success of the dim, bro-y Perseus, whose victories are explicitly made possible only by repeated intercession of the gods who think he’s an idiot. Here, Medusa is the only mortal in a family of minor immortals, a beautiful young woman who doesn’t yet have snakes for hair or a deathly murderous gaze. Her loving relationship with her two sister Gorgons is a substantial part of the story and for a time they live happily on their lands on the north coast of Africa. But when the teenage Medusa catches the eye of sea god Poseidon, he rapes her in the temple of Athena—-forcing her to submit by threatening to violently kill all the humans in their kingdom if she does not. Reinforcing the patriarchal tendencies of the ancient world, Athena’s fury is not directed at her uncle for violating her holy place, but at Medusa for allowing it, and the rest of the story sees the goddess doing her best to victim shame and punish a young girl whose life has already been brutally violated. Here, Medusa’s story seen as a tragedy of women, not the triumph of a man.
Haynes’ sprawling narrative style is put to excellent use here, weaving Medusa and Perseus’s stories into a larger canvas peppered with petty grievances, ancient grudges, love affairs, and violent war. Brutality is everywhere, from the literal war between the gods of Olympus and the giants who preceded them to the dozens of rapes and vaguely coded sexual assaults that are par for the course in so much of Greek mythology. (Though Haynes is clear-eyed and direct about calling a spade a spade on this point. Tricks, shape-shifting, and other forms of coercion don’t actually make it any better, guys!)
Her POV chapters shift between everyone from Medusa and Perseus to Athena and Hera, Amphitrite and the Nereids, a grove of olive trees, and even Medusa’s head after it has been severed from her body (an object known afterward as the Gorgoneion). The quick changes between whose voices we’re hearing can occasionally make it difficult to connect emotionally to any specific character, and several of the story’s major players (most often Athena) are deeply unlikeable.
But, Haynes’ trademark humor shines throughout—any scene in which pretty much anyone has to interact with Perseus is comedy gold—and the humanity she deliberately gifts to the most traditionally monstrous of her characters is often deeply moving. The scenes revolving around Medusa’s relationship with her sisters Euryale and Stethnno are some of the book’s most affecting, and the fierce emotional strength and connection they display in the wake of the younger girl’s attack offer an entirely new lens through which to view not only this story, but how we’ve been taught to decide what the idea of a monster means.
“Who decides what is a monster?’ one of the Gorgon sisters asks. ‘I don’t know,’ said Medusa. ‘Men, I suppose.’ It is Haynes who finally asks us why, in this particular case especially, we’ve chosen to believe them.
Stone Blind is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.