Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung
Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, that epic medley of transfiguration and rebirth, is one of the more controversial texts in the canon of European literature because so many of the myths it narrates involve some form of sexual violence. In Wake, Siren, the American author Nina MacLaughlin has selected 34 of Ovid’s stories – stories involving rape, assault and subtler abuses – and retold them in a contemporary idiom from the points of view of the female victims.
Each story is presented as a discrete monologue – or perhaps testimony is more accurate – delivered as if to camera by a betrayed mortal or nymph or minor female deity, calling out the crimes of the great Olympians and their favourite male heroes. We hear from Medusa; from Caenis, who was raped on the beach by Neptune; from Io, who was raped by Jove then turned into a white heifer; and from Thetis, the mother of Achilles, who was tied up and raped by Peleus.
In Ovid’s poem, these characters are often silenced by a miraculous transformation, which might be a punishment, reward, belated compensation or last-minute extrication from danger. Here, however, they loudly accuse. An unrepentant maenad describes Pentheus as a gross white dude who got what he deserved. Eurydice reveals that Orpheus serenaded her not with sweet music but with relentless putdowns. And Pygmalion is denounced as a misogynist by all the women of Cyprus, speaking as one.
MacLaughlin strips Ovid’s stories of their lyrical beauty, their weirdly ethereal dazzle, and confronts us instead with the bland but nonetheless shocking facts of sexual exploitation, of gender and power imbalances.
The book can at times feel a bit like doodling in the margins of a masterpiece because so many of these retellings come off as unpolished writing exercises or notes towards some more substantial creative endeavour.
But the theme of righteous indignation has its attraction. Wake, Siren is a book that offers some small measure of justice to the women in Ovid’s turbulent poem by giving them a voice and a chance to be heard. As Medusa says: “After thousands of years of other people’s tellings, of all these different bridges, of the wrong words leading meaning and truth astray, I’ll tell it myself.”
And why not? As Ovid himself understood, the world is changing.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Nina MacLaughlin, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung". Subscribe here.