Sunday, March 24, 2024

Review: Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Marketing did Natalie Haynes’ delightful Medusa retelling dirty. From the reviews, it appears readers went in expecting Madeline Miller’s magnificent Circe except with snakes for hair. I get it: the subtitle “Medusa’s Story” hints towards an intensely intimate perspective of a woman grappling with being the sole mortal among her gorgon sisters or working through the trauma of her violation in Athene’s temple. It’s not that book. It’s a different book. It’s good at what it sets out to do, and, unsurprisingly, fails at accomplishing what it doesn’t aim to do.

So what does it set out to do? Well, here my empathy for the misled readers ends because it is laid out fully from the very first page:

I see you. I see all those who men call monsters.

And I see the men who call them that. Call themselves heroes, of course.

I only see them for an instant. Then they’re gone.

But it’s enough. Enough to know that 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? She is what happens when someone cannot be saved.

This particular monster is assaulted, abused and vilified. And yet, as the story is always told, she is the one you should fear. She is the monster.

We’ll see about that.
Stone Tears is a story about what makes someone a monster. It is about Medusa, yes, but it is also about the “men who call [her] that” and who “call themselves heroes”. It is about “all those who men call monsters.” The second page takes us soaring above the world we are about to explore, a literal birds-eye view of a world structured around patriarchal dominance: gods over mortals, kings over subjects, men over women. Each of these power relations, we will see, creates monsters. The next chapter zooms into one such relationship: Zeus, king of the gods, hunts down and rapes the minor goddess Metis and then swallows her whole. It’s an intense chapter, the monstrosity of it is vivid. 

Readers waiting for “Medusa’s story” will have to wait until the 10% mark to hear through her eyes for the first time. Medusa is raised by her Gorgon sisters. It is a tiny isolated community: the three women live alone, lovingly tending a humble flock of sheep. The egalitarianism of it contrasts the scheming, power-hungry gods and monarchs of the surrounding chapters.

Medusa’s principle foil is, of course, Perseus, re-imagined as a Brock Turner or Brett Kavanaugh type: immensely privileged by birth, given help at every step of the way, whining as he fails upwards, and almost unbelievably cruel. Narratively, Perseus’s story is structured as a classic Hero's Journey—because of course it is in the classic retelling. Haynes deftly plays on our expectations with this trope, showing Perseus follow the expected steps of embarking on a quest and seeking wisdom and playing roguish tricks on a trio of three wise women, then taunting the reader for sympathizing with someone so carelessly cruel, so monstrous.

So perhaps when you’ve finished congratulating Perseus for his quick tricks, you might spare a moment to think about how the Graiai lived after he was gone. 

Blind and hungry.

With Medusa’s deadly head retrieved, Perseus wanders through the world killing indiscriminately and remorselessly, leaving the narrative for the last time laughing after turning his bride’s extended family to stone, musing how he will let others clean up his mess. 

But it is not just Perseus who is a monster. We see monstrous behavior in the gods’ egotistical violence: Zues’s rape and consumption of Metis, Poseidon’s rape of Medusa, his collective punishment of the Ethiopians for the vanity of their queen, Athene—powerless to take aim at her true target, Poseidon—cursing Medusa. We see other humans acting monstrously: a father who locked up his daughters out of fears of prophecies, a king forcing his brother’s life partner to marry him. Over and over, the true monster is patriarchy and its agents.

The horror of these figures of Greek mythology, varyingly beautiful or at least not portrayed as physically monstrous, is contrasted with the warm, caring sisterhood of the Gorgon sisters. Sthenno and Euryale’s loving reflections on the surprising delights and unsettling fears of motherhood are so human you forget they have tusks, wings and talons.

The hero/monster reversal is a very fun angle for a Greek mythology retelling. It’s satisfying terrain to explore here in the West as we reconsider Western myths from the colonization of the New World to which of the Allied forces was chiefly responsible for the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Haynes is at times didactic in her calling out to readers the monstrosity of her characters—I don’t begrudge her for it, the monsters of history and popular books attract far too many fans. Haynes tells the story from a creative array of characters: Medusa, Perseus, Athene all get their say, but so too the individual snakes that make up Medusa’s hair, and Medusa’s decapitated head. Perspective influences your definition of a monster, after all. 

Those looking for a more serpentine Circe should look elsewhere. Those with some tolerance for somewhat Marvel-y dialogue interested in a feminist retelling of a half dozen interwoven episodes from Greek mythology will enjoy Stone Blind.

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