Helen of Troy held great promise and had the ability to be a fantastic book. For the first 200 pages, I was enthralled with the life of this beautiful woman who held such power in mythology. The writing was so beautiful that it held its own rythym - I truly felt like I had closed my eyes and opened them in Sparta.
In the tradition of the epic historical fiction Margaret George is renowned for, Helen of Troy follows Helen from her early childhood right through the Trojan war and onto her eventual death. I've classed it as historical fantasy due to the fact that the story is grounded in mythology and does involve a measured amount of mystycism however, the level of research invested in this novel has meant that this is a mythological tale set against the very real backdrop of history.
The writing of this novel is introspective and delicate - there were passages I read that caused me to stop and take a slow breath. Take for example, this extract where Helen is speaking of her passion and love for Paris:
I lay looking at the tent ceiling in the darkness. This is what people speak of. Oh, my deepest thanks, Aphrodite, for granting it to me. I know now that to die without tasting this is truly not to have lived. In this, and this only, have we lived: to feel all, to dare all, to try all. (Page 230)
But for all the beauty of this novel, the writer made some very brave choices in her telling of it and I must admit that they did cause me to struggle to like Helen. In this version of the tale Helen does love her husband Menelaus and deeply respects him however feels no physical desire for him and feels trapped in a marriage that will forever lack the passion of Aphrodite. At the age of 25 Helen finds this passion with 16 year old Paris and consequently decides to abandon her husband and her 9 year old daughter to set sail for the shores of Troy and a life she imagines to be full of adventure. I couldn't help but baulk at her decision - perhaps it may have been forgiveable had her husband been a cruel man?
I may be revealing my ignorance of the mythology behind this novel by making this comment and if there are any readers who can correct me, please do, but I found it very difficult to overcome the fact that Paris was so young. Secondary characters refer to him as a 'boy' throughout the novel and at times I felt disbelief that the depths of Helen's emotions could run strong enough to risk everything for a mere teenager. I guess I would've felt a little more sympathetic to her plight had she been overcome by lust for a man or had she been herself a very young woman. As much as I hate to say it, I didn't feel that this novel successfully overcame the challenges of character laid down in the early plot. At the end of it all, I felt that due to her naivity and selfishness Helen kind of deserved her fate! Was that the intention of the author? I'm still not sure...
The slow and thoughtful pace of Helen of Troy is one of the things that makes this book so beautiful when you first begin reading it however, as a reader it becomes tedious when that same pace continues over 700 pages. It's difficult to create suspense when you're retelling such a famous and well-known story but when you're dealing with a war that carried such heavy consequences, I think it still would have been very achievable for a writer with a gift for words the way Margaret George has. I felt this book would've benefited from a 'less is more' approach; it could have easily been at least 200 pages shorter.
I really did enjoy this book and am certainly glad I read it but unfortunatley felt that ultimately it didn't deliver on the promise of a fantastic beginning. I would recommend Helen of Troy to readers who are fascinated by the legend of the Trojan War however I believe the best enjoyment will be found by approaching this novel with the expectation of reading an epic tragedy - if pace does not overly concern you, you will likely fall in love with the magic of Margaret George's prose.
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