A Review of Stone Blind, by Natalie Haynes
Medusa arrives on the scene of a Classical feminist mini-genre.
From Pat Barker's heart-wrenching portrayal of Briseis in Silence of the Girls to the growing works of Jennifer Saint to Madeline Miller's iconic Circe, feminist retellings of Greek myth are about as popular as a mini-genre can be. I devour these books just as rabidly as everyone else, so I was thrilled when the release of Stone Blind, a retelling of the Perseus and Medusa myth, was announced. I was even more thrilled when I heard Natalie Haynes would be its author.
It seems to me this mini-genre has been building toward a Medusa retelling for some time. The Medusa story with its divine violation of a woman, unjust murder at the hands of a male hero, and subsequent weaponization of Medusa's own body has been used as a touchstone and framing device in previous feminist retellings to understand the unjust treatment of women and the whims of the gods. In her 1975 essay, “The Laugh of Medusa” Helene Cixous uses Medusa as a means for encouraging women to write women-centered narratives. Jennifer Saint’s 2021 release, Ariadne, uses a Medusa vignette to help her protagonist question the difference between gods and monsters. Artist Luciano Garbati’s 2008 sculpture features Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus in a feminist twist on the familiar statues of Cellini and Canova. I’ve seen countless recreations of that particular inversion on phone cases and tote bags of my students and colleagues for years now. Something about the violence in this specific myth repeatedly draws us in.
But it’s not just readers of myth who have been waiting for a book like this. I get the sense that Natalie Haynes herself has been dying to write it as Medusa has worked her way into various projects from Haynes. She is mentioned in Haynes' previous best-seller, A Thousand Ships, and Medusa's reception in modern storytelling is the focus of a chapter in Haynes' Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths. Medusa was also the focus of an hour-long spot in Haynes’ comedy podcast, “Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics.” The petrifying gorgon seems to have stirred Haynes’ fascination with tragic women who become perpetrators of tragic deaths themselves.
So, after that decades-long cultural prelude, Stone Blind needed to deliver. Thankfully it does. The myth that is Stone Blind's focus is quite short. Medusa is born, raped by Poseidon, cursed by Athena, and eventually beheaded by Perseus at Athena's behest. To wring a novel length’s worth of material from this story, Haynes retells several myths throughout, focusing on three central plot lines: those of Medusa, Perseus, and Athena.
The swapping of narrative viewpoints and lack of linear plot can be jarring at first, but Haynes’ sense of humor does a lot to smooth over lag in the narrative and refocus the reader. Her background as a stand-up comedian shines through with quick payoffs and fast punchlines. These alleviate issues of pacing in a nonlinear narrative. During the early sections of Stone Blind, while Haynes is sewing all the seeds that will eventually (but have not yet) grow together, I found myself audibly laughing at the hilarious and quite modern relationship dynamics of the gods and heroes. Zeus and Hera’s toxic marriage presents the two on equal footing while they enjoy tormenting each other. Zeus is presented as a bit of an idiot, and a side-eyeing Hera is told so brilliantly, the famously angry goddess seems merely exasperated. During the birth of Athena from Zeus’ skull, Hera asks, “Are you absolutely certain you want to be hit in the head with an axe? Because I think it’s a marvelous idea.”
Their Olympian children and their family dynamic are also played for laughs, leaving the reader wondering how Zeus and Hera could raise 6 siblings as only children. Athena is the focal point of her generation. Her relationship with Perseus bears more resemblance to that of a newly hired employee learning how to deal with their incompetent boss than a hero called to action by a goddess. Such seemingly familiar frustrations allow the book to toe the line between retelling set in modernity (such as Orpheus and Euridice in Hadestown) and those that seem unable to exist outside antiquity (like Miller’s Song of Achilles).
Haynes’ Athena is written as a highly intelligent sociopath. She is cunning but incapable of empathy and unable to understand why she is so bored. It was this characterization in particular that I enjoyed. So often in these feminist retellings, women are written as inherently understanding and therefore empathetic to each other’s pain. While this feels spot on in retellings of stories like Trojan Women, Haynes hit upon something I have noticed in the Greek myths for a while now; there are more power dynamics at play than only those produced by gender inequality. Women can exploit these. Women are capable and powerful, but not all of us are always good. We’re human, dealing with a human complexity that is both good and bad. This more realistic exploration of women’s humanity is ironically present in the non-human characters of Athena and Medusa. Athena provides an excellent foil to Medusa, who constantly asks the audience to consider who the real monster is here. By showing a goddess as a multifaceted villain, Haynes writes a compelling and dynamic female antagonist to accompany her necessarily fleshed-out female protagonist.
As I was reading, I wondered if Haynes' comedy would create an inappropriate handling of the heavier aspects of Medusa's tale. I was relieved when it did not. In sections told from Medusa's point of view, jokes are avoided. Instead, they are replaced by the sweet sentiment between Medusa and her sisters. Medusa loves and is loved, making the moments of her violation by the gods and her following murder sting all the more. Haynes, it seems, can write sadness. Her background as a scholar of Euripides is just as apparent as her background in comedy, as she contorts the narrative into a tragedy. The book grows from disconnected comedic episodes and crystallizes into a story about Athena and her relationship to the monster she creates. The voice of a witty and defiant narrator aids this transition from comic to tragic by offering opinions and cutting remarks about the myths as they transpire. This narrator’s identity is a mystery, and with its reveal, Haynes pulls off a twist that should be impossible in a story whose ending we already know.
By the last few chapters, Stone Blind is a clear-cut tragedy, and Haynes treats it as such. The novel eventually reaches a bleak final scene that holds so much more meaning than its jaunty beginning would have you guess. I finished the book in about two days, but for weeks now, I keep coming back to Medusa’ last question: “Who decides what a monster is?”
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