The ancient Greeks held up Alcestis as a model of wifely devotion. Her husband, Admetus, was spared from death on the condition that someone else die in his place. When Admetus’ relatives and friends refused, Alcestis volunteered herself and made the journey to the underworld, but was later rescued by Heracles. In her debut novel, a poignant literary fantasy, Katharine Beutner fleshes out the figure of Alcestis, and gives her a backstory that helps explain her willingness to sacrifice herself.
Beutner’s Alcestis has always lived in the shadow of death, starting with her mother’s death in childbirth. Then, as a child, Alcestis loses her favorite sister, Hippothoe, to asthma. When her father remarries, Alcestis forges a bond with her new stepmother and later with her half-sisters, but she still misses Hippothoe terribly and sneaks out of the palace to visit her grave whenever she can. Later, Alcestis marries her cousin Admetus, but their wedding night is marred by a near-fatal encounter with poisonous snakes. Admetus is spooked, and between that and his love for the god Apollo, he’s a little distant from his wife. Yet Alcestis has never seen any reason to hope for more from a marriage.
Beutner paints a vivid picture of a world where women have few rights. This is not done in a heavy-handed way; Beutner’s portrayal of ancient Greek misogyny is all the more horrifying because of the matter-of-fact way it is presented. A wedding celebration that continues in its merry dancing even when an unmistakable scream pierces through the music; a father praying for his newborn child but never bothering to name the wife who just bore the child, and pointedly not mentioning to the gods that the baby is female; these things serve to remind us that Alcestis’ world is not our own. And Alcestis is a product of her times. She knows she is considered property to be handed from one man to another, and she doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t develop an anachronistic grrl-power attitude.
This is also a world where gods walk among men and women. Alcestis herself is the granddaughter of Poseidon, whom she has met only once:
Mostly I remembered Poseidon’s thick sea-clogged smell, and the way his black hair lay dull and damp against his skull, and the pattern of drips he’d left on the floors, like stories marked out in the stars.
Gods drift in and out of human lives, siring children and breaking hearts, not knowing (or not caring) what havoc they wreak.
When Alcestis descends into the underworld, she too is swept into a divine love affair, but an unusual one; she becomes the plaything of the goddess Persephone. Persephone is not likable, but I think that’s the whole point. You can love gods, and fear them, but you don’t do anything so cozy and mundane as like them.
I also think, though I may be stretching, that Persephone’s mercurial personality may be a reflection on the nature of storytelling. Persephone is sometimes said to have been claimed by Hades against her will, but sometimes it’s said that she loved him, and sometimes that she was the dominant one in the relationship, and so Beutner’s Persephone is made up of all these different versions of herself.
Beutner’s underworld is haunting. She does a great job of incorporating the existing mythology and of using her prose to set a scene both beautiful and utterly alien:
We flew, the god and I, wrapped in his fluttering cloak. The space around us was uniform as a cloud, but I saw shapes and patterns below us, patches of darkness, ribbons of gloom, glints of metal or stone. Lines of strange-colored light. I felt as if I were trying to make out the floor of the sea by looking through deep water.
Later, when Alcestis meets some of the shades who live in the underworld, there are some moments that will break your heart.
Speaking of heartbreaking, Alcestis left me with a mixture of pensiveness and sadness. Despite the sadness, I was glad to have followed her on her journey, and to feel like I “knew” this mythological character better than I did before. I do wish Beutner had written more about Alcestis’ daughter, though! I did some poking around after finishing the book, and there isn’t really anything known about this girl, but I wanted to see Beutner flesh her out and show how she lived up to what Persephone said about her. (Maybe in a later book? Please?)
I think anyone who liked Jo Graham’s Black Ships will find Alcestis rewarding, and so will anyone who liked Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia. Alcestis seems to exist in a middle ground between these two novels in terms of abstractness; I’d say it’s more abstract than Graham’s work and less abstract than LeGuin’s. I recommend it to readers who enjoy retellings of myth from the female perspective, and readers who are looking for a blend of fantasy and literary fiction.