Another week, another survey of books where mythology takes center stage — or at least where mythology’s influence can be boldly felt. And, hey, that’s not a crazy thing: myths get under your skin from a young age. There’s something reassuringly primal about them; they tap into certain themes and emotions that have resonated for centuries (or longer).
I’d heard good things about Bennett Madison’s novel September Girls. The plot begins simply: our narrator, Sam, is on an extended vacation with his father and older brother after their mother departs for parts unknown. They find themselves in a coastal town; slowly, Sam begins to notice that nearly all of the young women working there are gorgeous, and seem to be from parts unknown: mysterious accents, occasionally formal mannerisms, and so on. After a while, it’ll become easy to see what old story Madison is riffing on here — though this is hardly a faithful retelling, and that unpredictability gives it a lot of charm. A captivating setting, layered characters, and more than a few mysteries combine in a powerful way. And it didn’t hurt that reading it guaranteed I’d have Big Star running through my head the whole time. (Also recommended: Sarah McCarry’s conversation with Madison.)
Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless is less a retelling of an older story than a story about the retelling of stories. In the early years of the Soviet Union, Marya Morevna becomes betrothed to Koschei the Deathless — but she quickly learns that she is not his first love, nor is she likely to be his last. As her country’s landscape becomes the site of battles both realistic and mythic, Marya struggles against the pattern in which she finds herself enmeshed. This novel functions on two levels: on the one hand, it’s an account of a normal person brought face-to-face with the supernatural; on the other, it contrasts the cyclical nature of myths with the cycles of totalitarian rule that have befallen Russia. It’s a powerful comparison, and one that leads to a haunting set of scenes at the novel’s conclusion.
Eleni Sikelianos’s The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead alternates between the business of daily life and intrusions of dreamlike, archetypal figures. The poems contained in here take odd forms, sprawling across the page and occasionally transmitting themselves in sudden, intense rhythms. Reading it, I felt as though I was privvy to a particular set of codes and images: something private transposed into startlingly vivid language. Sikelianos’s poems occasionally hearkened back to her home life, as do the poems contained in Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun. Here too are ordinary humans; here too are angels, bursting onto the page. These poems are gritty and surreal, haunted and defiant.