A spirited appendix to one of literature’s greatest stories, in which the face that launched a thousand ships is supplied with a brain and a voice to match her legendary beauty.
Greek tragedy warns that you should always be careful what you wish for. George (The Memoirs of Cleopatra, 1997, etc.) honors that convention here, imagining that at least part of the misery wrought by and upon Agamemnon and Menelaus owes to their juvenile longing for a new age of heroes. It’s no help to their egos when Clytemnestra chimes in, “you will have to content yourself with cattle raids and minor skirmishes. That is the problem with times of peace. But who would wish it otherwise?” They would, and their time comes when Menelaus’ discontented wife gets her wish and heads for Troy with a prince of the city, Paris. While appreciative of his demi-divine prize, Paris recognizes that the affair isn’t such a good idea. Brilliant as well as beautiful, Helen is persuasive, though Paris convinces her to at least leave her daughter behind, saying that because she loves Sparta, she “will not leave it bereft of a queen.” All that comes back into play years later, after Achilles has spent his wrath and Hector tamed his horses, after Iphigenia has been sacrificed and Troy is a heap of smoking stones. The best part of the tale lies in the shadows of which the Homeric epics hint but do not speak. The author does a fine job, for instance, of depicting the continuing fury of the curse of the Atreids, which finally resolves itself in a new era that has no room for heroes, and of imagining a sort-of-reconciled Helen and Menelaus growing old together, a “shuffling, old-person’s peace—the peace that descends when all other concerns have either died or fled.”
An Olympian effort, worthy of shelving alongside Renault and Graves.