I missed the Canongate Myth Series when it was first published (I wasn’t in Blighty), but stumbled across it on Amazon one day. I’d been hugely impressed by Ali Smith at the Edinburgh Book Festival (2012), but I hadn’t gotten around to reading anything of hers yet, and when I found Girl Meets Boy, I just had to put it on my list. Jeanette Winterson’s offering tempted me too, and I got both for Christmas (lucky me!).
The series is an impressive reimagining of classical myths, and it gives each author enough leeway to make it their own. Ali Smith transforms the myth of Iphis, daughter of Ligdus, without the Ovidian metamorphosis twist at the end. Although the love story is key, I really like Smith’s focus on the relationship between the two sisters, Anthea and Imogen. They are both wonderfully well-drawn characters; realistic and sympathetic without being overwrought.
Whilst I enjoyed Smith’s novel, I loved Winterson’s Weight more. It tells the story of Atlas with shades of Heracles also. The nerd in me liked that she chose the Greek Heracles, rather than the later Roman interpretation, Hercules, but that pleasure would on its own be short-lived. There was something aching in Winterson’s prose that really touched me. Her Atlas ached with the weight of the world, and the weight of his responsibility, to the world but also to Heracles, who for a short time takes on the burden from him. Yet ultimately, his final responsibility is to himself.
Atlas is preoccupied with narrative and with boundaries, filled with existential angst, filled with deep and uncharted sensibilities. He is a character who draws the reader in. Winterson’s drawing of Heracles, the supposed pinnacle of masculinity, almost falls into the trap of making him monochrome and simplistic, but we find that he too has a sense of being filled with deep and uncharted thoughts and feelings, although he senses them dimly, does not confront them so head-on as Atlas. This doubling really adds to the first-person story, which otherwise might feel too overpowering, much like Atlas’ burden. I’d strongly recommend everyone buy this and read it over and over again.