In recent years there have been many retellings of Greek myths but Medusa – The Girl Behind The Myth by Jessie Burton stands out and not only because of the mesmerising illustrations by Olivia Lomenech Gill. In the first line of this YA novel the reader is asked: ‘If I told you I’d killed a man with a glance would you wait to hear the rest?‘ This chatty, personal tone continues as the reader is drawn into Medusa’s confessional via her private hopes and dreams. ‘It’s the hardest thing in the world to explain yourself, to tell your story clearly.’ On seeing Perseus moor his boat she would like to eat him up ‘like honey cake.‘ She is not sure whether to tell him to leave or stay: ‘My heart astonished me like a new bruise that wants pressing.‘ So, we experience the full gamut of emotions: her fear, despair, loneliness, love for her sisters, love for Perseus and finally finding her own self-worth.
Yet there is much humour and wit to be found in the story. We begin to appreciate the many different personalities of all the named snakes on Medusa’s head. They are now a part of her. And when Perseus asks from behind a cave wall if she did break boys’ hearts, we sense her frustration at not being able to tell her story: ‘No, I said a touch impatiently, for the boys’ hearts weren’t the point of this story; my own heart was‘. Instead, she schools Perseus in what it is like to be a girl: ‘When beauty’s assigned you as a girl, it somehow becomes the essence of your being. It takes over everything else you might be. When you’re a boy, it never dominates who you can be.’
There are so many debates to be had with secondary pupils using this retelling as a springboard around the questions of othering, consent, the abuse of power and concepts of beauty and ugliness. The most powerful observation I would explore is this: ‘Listen Perseus, I said, Take it from someone who knows. Sometimes, not even folding yourself into the smallest, littlest shape is enough. So, you might as well stay the size you’re supposed to be.’ An exciting and powerful text to have in secondary libraries and perhaps as a book group choice.
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