YA Guy has always been fascinated by literary retellings, particularly retellings of stories deeply rooted in a culture’s consciousness.
Some of the greatest works of Western literature, from Homer’s epics to Shakespeare’s plays, are retellings of stories that circulated in the popular culture of their time. Likewise, some of the most interesting stories being told today, from Gregory Maguire’s expansion of the Oz canon to Rick Riordan’s reimagining of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology, are retellings of popular lore. One of my own stories, “Scarecrow” (which you can pick up from Untreed Reads Publishing, if you’re interested), reimagines the Oz tale from the straw man’s point of view.
When we encounter such stories, we experience both a return to the familiar and a journeying into uncharted territory. These stories don’t just teach us something we didn’t know; they enable us to re-see something we thought we did.
Snakehead, Ann Halam’s 2009 YA novel, is one of my favorite literary retellings. The book didn’t make that big of a splash when it came out, and that’s a shame: it’s a masterfully conceived and rendered novel by one of the finest YA fantasy/sci-fi writers around. I found it recently on my local library’s clearance rack, and I just had to review it here.
In Snakehead, Halam retells the Perseus myth, but not in the manner of Clash of the Titans or The Lightning Thief: she keeps action to a minimum, choosing instead to explore the culture of ancient Greece and the relationships between characters (particularly Perseus and Andromeda, who in this retelling is a refugee seeking to escape her sentence). It’s a tribute to this book’s brilliance that the archaic society seems at once astonishingly modern and utterly alien--or to put this another way, Halam succeeds in showing that what appears bizarre and otherworldly to the people of one time and place (human sacrifice, conversations with immortals, divine curses) may have appeared routine and commonplace to others. One of Halam’s more inspired contrivances is to have Andromeda, the child of Africa, bring phonetic script to the Greek isles, where this new form of artistry is described in language befitting its mystery and majesty:
She saw a Greek city, rich in marble buildings, with vivid-columned temples. Rivers of light were springing from it and flying across the lands, weaving a fabric richer than her eyes could follow, vanishing north, east, west, south, to the ends of the earth. And she was part of the dazzling, world-spanning pattern that sprang from that shining city, because she had made the flying marks, because she had made the leap of power.
In Snakehead there’s a sense in which the monstrous is defeated (or at least held at bay) not so much by muscle as by art: celebrating the invention of literature, Halam’s story is a myth about how myth came to be written. This is YA fiction not only for teens but for all of us: a book that reimagines one of the oldest and most enduring of Western stories in language as beautiful as myth itself.
Retellings like Snakehead remind us that no story is complete, that stories hold stories within stories within stories. They persuade us that new worlds are possible. At their best, they renew not only literature but the act of reading itself.
[P.S. The artwork at the head of this post is mine!]