If I told you that I’d killed a man with a glance, would you wait to hear the rest?
This question opens Jessie Burton‘s latest novel, Medusa (2021), a feminist retelling of the famous Greek myth. Told through the eyes of the snake-headed Medusa herself, the story reframes her tale as Burton uses myth to examine our own culture of victim-blaming, slut-shaming and toxic masculinity, provoking the question: Is Medusa truly a monster?
We meet Medusa as she stands on the edge of a cliff on the island she’s been banished to, just as Perseus – the boy down below, on his boat – arrives on her shores. Medusa knows it is safest to remain hidden, but when her dog Argentus greets Perseus’ dog Orado, she is forced down to the shore. She remains hidden as she talks to him, discovering only that he is on some kind of mission. She hides behind the wall of a cove to give him fish and it is not long before the pair befriend one another.
But Perseus does not know where he is or, for that matter, who Medusa is. As the days go by, the pair share their stories with one another and, thanks to Burton’s masterful story-telling, it is a shock both for Perseus and for us that he has been sent to kill the very monster he is falling in love with.
Burton’s glittering prose is not the only thing that brings this story to life; Olivia Lomenech Gill has created dark and beautiful illustrations which serve as a beguiling counterpoint to the writing. Sometimes disturbing, they are another way to show Medusa’s vulnerability as we see the character in a light that no other text has afforded her until now.
And character truly is the main driving force behind the novel. Burton has long been a master of characterisation (her smash debut The Miniaturist is the surest proof), and in Medusa we finally see the titular protagonist not as a monster to be slain, or a footnote in another hero’s story: she is a nuanced, thoughtful and at times uncertain young woman with her own desires and aspirations. We see her anger at the injustice of her situation and watch as she gradually discovers her own freedom and strength.
She is not the only usually silent character offered a voice: Burton has taken the time to name all of Medusa’s snakes, most memorably Echo, a coral-coloured snake with emerald bands all up her body. The snakes hiss their disapproval when they are displeased, and seem to have lives all of their own.
This is a tale of injustice, liberation and giving a voice to the voiceless. It will charm and enchant you, whilst simultaneously drawing alarming parallels with the pitfalls of today’s culture. Whether you’re a fan of myth or not, Medusa is destined to delight.