For Her Dark Skin - Percival L. Everett I’m giving Percival Everett’s For Her Dark Skin a cool three stars. It’s a retelling of the Medea myth (following Euripides’ own rather late interpretation*) but it falls rather short of saying something new – at least to me.

As Christa Wolf does in her [b:Medea|153480|Medea|Christa Wolf||148159], Everett tells the tale in brief chapters told from various points of view, chief among them being Jason, the traditional hero of the myth; Polydeuces, the brother of Helen of Troy and in this version Jason’s friend; Tamar, a woman of Corinth and Polydeuces’ wife; and Medea.** While all four are rather richly developed characters, and I liked how the latter three interacted with each other, I couldn’t accept the sum total of their interactions. By which I mean that I could never accept Medea and Jason getting together in the first place. In the myth, Aphrodite has her son Eros shot Medea with an arrow of love, making it fated that she would fall for Jason and help him steal the fleece, even to the extent of murdering her own brother, Apsyrtus. But in For Her Dark Skin, the gods, as real beings, are absent. Medea excuses her actions as the result of Eros’ arrow (and she even has converse with the imp in parts of the novel) but these can be construed as her own consciousness rationalizing her actions. Aside from Eros, no other god appears as a character. Given that and given that we understand from Medea’s first appearance that she despises Jason, I couldn’t believe that she would do all she does for him.

There are hints, however, of deeper motivations that a longer novel might have brought out to greater effect. For example, Everett usually portrays Medea as worldly and wise but elsewhere hints at a youthfulness and naiveté suggesting the Medea who fell in love with Jason was a moonstruck teen-ager. Or there’s the possibility that Medea sees Jason as a means to escape a life she finds stultifying (a decision she quickly comes to regret). The dissonance within the characterization of the novel’s chief character is the book’s greatest weakness.

That said, I still liked the book (though I’m glad I first read Everett’s more mature novels; I’m not sure I would have read more from him if this had been my first): Recommended with caveats.

Finally, there are some instances of terrific writing or interesting lines that I can’t fit into the review but which I found interesting: Jason and Medea are the quintessential dysfunctional couple. While Medea has scoped Jason out very well, Jason is such a self-centered imbecile that it’s almost comical. For example, Jason expects Medea to be the perfect (ancient) Greek wife: submissive and compliant to her husband’s wishes. In one scene, as told from Jason’s POV, he berates her for leaving his presence without permission:

She gained her feet and her balance, for a second, seemed to desert her. She became steady, straightened, and walked away toward her chamber.

“Medea!” I shouted.

She stopped.

“I have not dismissed you.”

She turned to face me. “Would you repeat that?” she asked.

“I have not dismissed you.”

Her eyes teared.
(p. 102)

The same scene as told from Medea’s POV:

I could find no words that this creature would understand, none that would find entry into his tunnel of perception. So, I stood and started for my bed. He stopped me with a shout and I turned to hear him say –

“I have not dismissed you.” Twice he said it.

“And you do well not to,” I said.
(p. 103)

I also liked these two quotes:

“Spare me your lofty philosophy, your oriental rambling. I truly believe that men should never set out for adventure; they learn things, but gain no wisdom.” (p. 46)

“It struck me that man was the only creature capable of denying something known to be true. Nature had not done well by us.” (p. 115)

* Everett makes Tamar a cousin of Euripides. One chapter is a letter from her to him laying out what’s happening in Corinth.

** Polydeuces is perhaps better known to the general public by his Latin name of Pollux. He is the twin brother of Castor and (as mentioned above) his sister is Helen of Troy. Aside from his attested participation in the quest for the Golden Fleece, Everett largely ignores Polydeuces’ accepted mythography. Tamar is wholly an invention of Everett’s.