Pandora’s Jar: Women in Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

Spinalonga, off the Greek island of Crete

Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always like to explain my reasons when I give a book three stars or less. My rating of three stars for this book came about from a combination of the circumstances of my coming to it, together with my reading experience. As to how I came across this book – this was the first book I picked up after browsing for the first time in an actual bookshop following lockdown. The allure of the title, the feel of the book in my hands – it felt so good to be back in a bookstore again. Pandora’s Jar promised much, and I had high expectations. Unfortunately, while being a good book, it fell short of what I was hoping for.

So what was it that I was hoping for? Perhaps a subversion of the mythological trope which centres the male hero and where the female experience is largely sidelined? Perhaps a powerful feminist re-telling of familiar myths where women take centre stage? In many ways, the book does a little of this. After all, the trope of Pandora and her box is immediately subverted by the substitution of a jar for that box that we are all so familiar with. But this sort of subversion that I was hoping for was nowhere near enough, and some of the narrative style bordered on being asinine – so much so that it detracted from the power of the potential of the book. For instance, in the chapter concerning that well known female monster, Medusa, the author feels it appropriate, after telling us that Perseus stopped to wash his hands, to crack the joke that cleanliness is next to demi-godliness, thereby not only detracting from, but in fact minimising the lesson from what was otherwise building to a powerful discourse on the objectification of the female body and the innate loneliness that came with Medusa’s curse (a curse which she suffered through no fault of her own). The joke belittled Medusa’s story for me. It was infuriating.

I also, when reading, became a little frustrated by the references to current popular culture to show the manifestation of Greek mythological women in franchises such as Star Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It lacked any real relevance to me, especially when I was already thinking that the exploration of each of the female characters was bordering on being somewhat shallow.

I vacillated between giving this book 3 or 4 stars. Some of the chapters were outstanding – for me the chapter on Clytemnestra was particularly enthralling because it centred her – and was dedicated to trying to really expose the essence of what made her the woman that she was, rather than resorting to half-hearted jokes. But this very excellent chapter only served to highlight the deficiencies in some of the others. The chapter on Clytemnestra was the chapter for all the ‘wronged, silenced and undervalued’ women in society. The rest of the book could have been so much more.

The book set itself the task of filling in some of the blank space when it came to the telling of the stories of the women. In that I suppose it succeeded. I really wish, though, that it did just a little bit more.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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