Laura Gill: “Helen’s Daughter”

Helen's Daughter

“You shouldn’t spend so much time in the sun,” Helen advised. “Use the Syrian cream I gave you. It’s made with crushed pearls, to keep your skin white and soft. We used it all the time in … ” She caught herself before she could tell me where.
I ventured a guess. “In Troy?”
Her needle-thin eyebrows drew together. I could almost see the regret on her face. “Yes,” she said shakily. “It was very windy.”

Novel
Pages: 330
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: When the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen of Sparta, she left behind a nine-year-old daughter, Hermione.

Now, years later, the Trojan War is over. Nineteen-year-old Hermione eagerly awaits her father’s return, but remains ambivalent toward her mother, even as her world is once again turned upside-down. Can Hermione survive the trials that await, or will she become another victim of the curse that haunts her family?

“Eat something. I expect to bring home a queen, not a sickly waif. I want everyone who looks at you to know you’re Helen’s daughter.”
“Stop calling me that.”
Neoptolemus knelt down across from me and braced a hand on the rocking deck. “Anyone who knows who you are will call you that, whether you like it or not. Do you think it’s any different for the son of Achilles?”

Review: As far as I can tell, Helen’s Daughter is self-published and only available in e-book formats, two factors that in the past, I confess, would have led me to pass over it. However, at the moment I’m living in a small town in Japan with a significant dearth of English language Trojan War novels, so when I saw that this book could be purchased for less than five dollars, I decided to give it a try. I am extraordinarily glad that I did. Like, to the point that it’s taken me a month to write this entry because I’m scared I won’t be able to convey exactly how much I enjoyed this book.

· How is this my first time posting about a book based on the returns from Troy when I am almost as fascinated by the returns as I am by the war itself?! I mean, if you like myths about dysfunctional, murderous families, I don’t know of any better than the House of Atreus, which of course is the basis for a major section of this novel. Neoptolemus also puts in an appearance, as do Nestor (and sons) and Telemachus. The post-war interactions of the royal families of Greece are really interesting to me, and this book provides plenty.
     … but I must confess I was even more stoked when both Andromache and the too-often underused Helenus showed up. STOKED. Post-war Helenus and Andromache are so fascinating to me I can’t even tell you. And Gill’s Helenus is almost exactly as I picture him, trapped in a position where he holds a certain amount of power within a Greek palace but is constantly reminded of and disrespected for his tragic Trojan past. It took me a bit longer to get used to Gill’s Andromache, but by the end of her appearance I absolutely loved her. (I was really pleased by Gill’s use of certain elements and rejection of certain other elements from Euripides’ “Andromache.”) I also really love the idea that the names we know the Trojan characters by were not their real names, but taunting names given to them by their Greek captors. The way that Gill differentiates Trojan culture and Greek culture is really interesting. My one complaint about the appearance of Helenus and Andromache in this novel is that I kept waiting to hear what Helenus was doing in the days leading up to the fall of Troy, and such an explanation never came. I suppose I shall have to settle for the theory I dutifully created based on the few hints in the text.

· Every time I write a post on this blog that criticizes a book’s portrayal of its female characters, I spend the rest of the day fighting with myself about the extent to which one should expect a book set in the past to reflect ideas of today. I bring this up so I can tell you that I think Helen’s Daughter does a great job not only of presenting a realistic portrayal of ancient Greece, but also of creating realistic female characters to inhabit it. It’s been too long since I’ve read a Trojan War-related novel that treated its female characters as people, so excuse me while I get excited about this. Hermione is a great character and also the novel’s first-person narrator, so we have a front row seat to her thoughts about what happens to and around her. She plays a major role in several different women’s rituals, the sort I’ve read about in non-fiction books like Bettany Hughes’ Helen of Troy but hadn’t seen before in fiction. I think I was especially happy with the way Gill portrays Hermione’s relationships with other women – believable relationships that subtly develop over time. I really appreciated the careful handling of the relationship between Helen and Hermione. Even Clytaemnestra, though treated as a villain, is given several moments that humanize her. That life would have been difficult for these women is absolutely not brushed over, and many terrible things happen to them that they are unable to prevent, but I call this novel a feminist novel because we see these characters dealing with their problems – sometimes with strength and sometimes with weakness, but always in ways that are true to both the world they live in and to the fact that they are three-dimensional people.
     Ugh that paragraph took me forever to write and I’m still not sure it says what I want it to. To sum up: this may well be the most feminist Trojan War novel I’ve ever read, and I absolutely love it for that.

· I also loved how this book presents menstruation as a totally normal part of life. As a regular annoyance that just has to be dealt with. Because, I mean, for a pretty decent number of people that’s what it is, right? I loved that there were scenes where Hermione was like “ugh I’m cramping and don’t feel like doing anything.” That is my experience exactly, har har. I’m sure there are people who would prefer not to read about this stuff at all, but for me these details made the book more realistic and I love that they’re there.

· (Skip this point for spoilers or if you don’t want to read about portrayals of rape in fiction.) Early on in the novel, Hermione is raped – and it affects her. Frequently. For years afterwards. And we see her being affected by it. The reason I feel the need to praise Helen’s Daughter for this is that I am 95% sure that this is the first Trojan War-related novel I’ve read where this happens. Way more frequent is the Greek mythology trope in which a character is raped, gives birth to the resulting child, and then is never mentioned again. (Elizabeth Cook’s Achilles takes that route about three times before the one passage where it hints at the effects of rape.) It’s interesting to me to compare the section of the book where Hermione is worried that she’s pregnant with the similar section in Adèle Geras’ Troy. Both characters take a powder to end the pregnancy – in Troy, the character travels by herself to a sketchy part of the city, buys the powder from a woman who frightens her, and takes it while alone and fearing the gods’ vengeance. In Helen’s Daughter, Hermione receives the powder as a gift from a woman who offers her assistance and sympathy and takes it – without fear of the gods – while surrounded by women she trusts. I would argue that these scenes reflect the general attitudes of the books they feature in, and I much prefer the latter.

· Once again I must confess to a preconceived bias against self-published books; I honestly expected that there wouldn’t be very much research behind Helen’s Daughter. But, as her blog makes clear, Gill has a strong interest in Mycenaean Greece and it definitely comes through in this book. I loved how many times a description of an object or a piece of jewelry had me thinking “I’ve seen pictures of that!” While there is a bit of creative license taken here and there, overall the level of attention to historical detail is really fantastic.

· Truth be told, I only have one real criticism of this book. The writing style is very calm and matter-of-fact, which overall I enjoyed, but because it’s always calm and matter-of-fact it sometimes seems at odds with what the characters are feeling or experiencing. I think a slight shift in style might have helped me to connect better with the emotions in the more intense scenes.

· This book doesn’t have one straightforward plot so much as it is the telling of an event-filled decade in Hermione’s life, but it was a great read and when I reached the end I found myself wishing it were double the length. Consider the negative ideas I had about self-published books completely shattered. I was thrilled to learn that Gill has e-published three books about Orestes, and I will definitely be reading them. With any luck, they’ll meet the high expectations that Helen’s Daughter has given me.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, Smashwords

Helenus’s face remained impassive except for the faint twitch of his eyebrows. “Your mother kept her true feelings hidden.” A pause. “You are nothing at all like her.”

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3 Responses to “Laura Gill: “Helen’s Daughter””

  1. Finding this review was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise. Thank you.

    I never really considered “Helen’s Daughter” a feminist work, mostly because Hermione doesn’t make grand gestures the way Clytaemnestra and some of the other female characters do, but am pleased that someone out there recognizes that a woman doesn’t have to be holding a double axe and driving a chariot to be strong.

    I hope you enjoy the Orestes novels, and the many memorable characters, both male and female, that you encounter in my forthcoming novel, “Knossos.”

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