Stone Blind: A Novel
“Haynes is a perceptive writer, and you’ll likely find yourself agreeing with her interpretation of the Medusa myth.”
Natalie Haynes knows the classics inside and out and has a knack for adding a contemporary twist to mythology. In her newest novel, Stone Blind, she takes on the story of Medusa. You remember Medusa, right? Gorgon. Monster. Snakes in place of hair. Gaze that could turn a living being into stone. Killed by the hero Perseus, who later went on to rescue the Ethiopian maiden Andromeda and generally make a big name for himself. Remember her?
What if everything you’d been told about Medusa was wrong? If history (and mythology) is written by the victors, who’s to say Medusa wasn’t a wronged young woman and Perseus an ineffectual, self-serving bro who only succeeded through the intercession of the Gods? That unraveling of the accepted aspects of the myth forms the crux of this feminist retelling of Medusa’s story.
At its heart, every Greek myth is a tale of gods and goddesses behaving badly, usually with mortals on the receiving end of that bad behavior. As the only mortal in a family of Gorgons, Medusa is beloved by her sisters, who raise her by the sea on the north coast of Africa. When the teenaged Medusa is raped by Poseidon inside Athene’s temple, Athene takes her anger out not on her uncle but on the female mortal. The women always seem to pay.
This is Medusa’s story, but the events leading up to her birth, her curse, her beheading by Perseus, and all that follows are a complex interweaving of grievances both petty and monumental. Stone Blind’s narrative jumps from character to character and event to event in short chapters. While it’s an effective way of sharing a huge amount of backstory (and front story), it’s less effective at developing character. We don’t spend quite enough time with any of the characters, especially Medusa, to invest any genuine emotion in them.
To be fair, this is a non-traditional telling of events that the reader has likely heard before in some form. However, If the intent is to make the reader see these events and characters in a new light and to humanize Medusa (who was mortal, after all), then it seems the reader would benefit from spending a bit more time with that character.
There are moments when it feels like Haynes is telling the reader what to feel, such as when Medusa asks her older sister Euryale if she was always meant to have snake hair.
“‘No,’ she said. ‘That was just Athene, finding a clever way to punish you. Clever, as she thinks of it, I mean. She would have been so pleased with herself, punishing you by making you a monster, like your sisters.’
‘You aren’t monsters,’ Medusa said.
‘Neither are you. Who decides what is a monster?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Medusa. ‘Men, I suppose.’
“So to mortal men, we are monsters. Because of our teeth, our flight, our strength. They fear us, so they call us monsters.’”
Stone Blind is not without its charms. Haynes has a marvelous sense of humor and is at her best when imbuing the classics with contemporary sensibilities, such as the scenes where Athene and Hermes assist Perseus (making it clear they’re doing so because Zeus told them to). Perseus has been told that the Hesperides have what he needs but doesn’t know how to find them.
“‘Didn’t you ask the Graiai where you could find them?’ said Athene.
‘No.’ A particularly belligerent gust almost sent him flying. ‘No. I was hoping you would know.’
‘We can’t do everything for you,’ she replied. ‘Maybe you should go back and ask them for directions.’
Perseus thought he might just let go and allow the winds to take him to his death. ‘I’m not sure they would tell me now,’ he said.
‘Oh, did you annoy them?’ she asked.
‘I tricked them,’ he said. ‘So they would tell me what I needed to know.’
‘I see,’ said Hermes. He and Athene exchanged a glance. ‘We were hoping you’d do a little more.’
‘I will try to do better next time,’ said Perseus. ‘If there is a next time.’
‘I’m not sure I would encourage you to embark on other quests,’ said Athene. ‘You’re not doing well at all, not even by the standards of a mortal.’”
The short chapters and narrative jumping lend themselves to short bursts of reading, so if you’re looking for a novel to get lost in, Stone Blind may not be it. But Haynes is a perceptive writer, and you’ll likely find yourself agreeing with her interpretation of the Medusa myth.