Neem Tree Press (2023) p/b 272pp £9.99 (ISBN 9781911107576)

This novel is the first of a trilogy, The House of Atreus, with Helen’s Judgement and Electra’s Furydue to follow. W. has clearly researched into both the history of the family of Atreus and the customs and way of life in the Mycenaean age as a springboard for this, her first novel. It is prefaced by a useful map of Bronze Age Greece and family trees of the Houses of Atreus, Troy and Aeacus; character lists of mortals and divinities appear as appendices. The novel itself is divided into three sections with Part 2 occupying by far the largest portion. The whole work is written in the first person, very imaginatively, through the voice of Clytemnestra herself.

The first paragraph of Part 1 takes the reader straight to the end of the novel: Clytemnestra is now in joint charge of Mycenae with Aegisthus while Agamemnon is fighting at Troy and she is determined to kill him on his return. From there we immediately return to her past and that of her family, with a graphic description of Thyestes being fed his sons by Atreus, a theme that recurs throughout the book: ‘Greasy globules scald his oesophagus. He belches…’.

We learn that Thyestes later took the throne from Atreus, and a young Clytemnestra was married to another of Thyestes’ sons, Tantalus, ruling Mycenae with him and bearing a son, Iphitus. Her happiness is destroyed by the arrival of Agamemnon, who ruthlessly butchers her husband and baby son and claims Mycenae and Clytemnestra for himself.  Menelaus and Aegisthus join the household and their kindness is constantly contrasted with Agamemnon’s heartless brutality. At the end of this part, Clytemnestra is pregnant with his child, the outcome of a single violent encounter.

Part 2 describes in much explicit detail, Clytemnestra’s life with Agamemnon and the births and characters of their three children. Iphigenia, the first-born is sweet and charming; Electra is wild and wants to be a boy; Orestes is weak and feeble in comparison with the king’s older bastard son, Nicandros, an interesting addition to the traditional version. As throughout the novel there are elaborate descriptions of encounters, rituals, feasting, women’s clothing and make-up. Vivid imagery and epithets abound: speaking of the midwife, Clytemnestra says: ‘whose services I maintained to keep her fox-mouth shut…’ and of Agamemnon: ‘he swilled from his cup like a hound from a puddle…’. Aegisthus looms large as a friend and protector of Clytemnestra. Menelaus has now gone to Sparta where he has married Helen. In W.’s novel, Clytemnestra has no knowledge of this marriage, nor of the death of both her parents (apparently caused by the marriage) until much later. Paris, the Trojan prince, arrives in Mycenae and charms everyone, before moving on to visit Menelaus and Helen. His furtive return to Troy with Helen triggers Agamemnon to gather an Achaean army to attack that city and bring back his brother’s wife. He leaves Aegisthus in charge of Mycenae, with Clytemnestra and the children.

In the final section, Iphigenia is summoned to Aulis on the pretext of marriage to Achilles, but her mother eventually discovers that she was sacrificed there to obtain a fair wind to take the Achaeans to Troy. Clytemnestra and Aegisthus become very close and vow vengeance on Agamemnon whenever he returns.

This is a very modern novel and quite different in many ways to the accounts of myths and legends by ancient Greek writers, where things are often alluded to, rather than spelt out in detail. It tells similar stories, but adds a vast amount of description of every aspect of what domestic and other life might have been like at that time. No particulars are spared in the frequent depictions of sex and violence. It is not an easy read for the faint-hearted.

Marion Gibb