Some time before the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I started to volunteer at my junior high school library. I shelved books, checked books out and in, sorted index cards, and did all the other things you do to help keep a library running. In exchange, I got first dibs on all the books that were discarded at the end of the year. I think my haul that summer was about 120 books. Most were tattered and dog-eared and quite a few fell apart before the year was out, but what an amazing find. I'd been a good little overachiever and was already familiar with all the 'serious' authors my anglophile upbringing required I know, so nobody objected to my bringing home this 'young adult' stuff. I was free to read all I wanted. And boy did I read. Science fiction, fantasy, biography, horror, suspense, mysteries, mythology, poetry, and books that were simply about kids growing up. I've forgotten all but a few of the authors' names, but I always imagined them to be magical beings, almost. Adults who could somehow bridge the gap between their grow-up selves and the kids they used to be and who could use this amazing ability to tell other kids trying to muddle through this whole growing up thing that we'd make it to the other side ok. Most adults I knew at the time couldn't do that. Most I know now still can't. Like me, they got to the other side and just kept going.
And I might have kept on going had I not met a few people through my MA who still have that magic about them. I've spoken of Penni Russon before - she's written the amazing Undine trilogy, Undine, Breathe and Drift and has other projects underway - but this semester I also met Jennifer Cook. Soon after meeting her, and having just come off the fantastic ride that Penni's books had taken me on the previous year, I decided that I absolutely had to read her books as well. So, the day I handed in my thesis, I headed over to the library and picked up Ariadne: The Maiden and the Minotaur.
Now the thing about this book is that it's not like anything I've ever read. And I'll bet it's not like anything you've ever read either. Having been 'into' mythology aeons ago, I knew the story of the Minotaur and of Ariadne and Theseus and I was curious to see what Jen had done with it. I was expecting a strong female voice. I was expecting something written for smart thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds. I was expecting something exciting and eventually empowering. And I have to say Jen delivered on all of these things. But the thing about Jen, speaking as someone who has the priviledge of being able to call her 'Jen', is that she does everything in a way that is absolutely, unmistakeably, uncompromisingly her own. You sit up and notice when you meet her. And you sure as hell sit up and notice when you read her.
Ariadne begins with a girl, sixteen and dumped. Yes, it's thousands of years ago and she's on a stony island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, but that's not the point. The point is she's angry and from the get-go you know you don't want to get in her way. Her heart may be broken, but she isn't and from the story, you get the feeling she won't be, no matter what the gods throw at her. She'll get bruised and battered - she already has after all - but she's the sort who cusses her head off at fate and keeps going. She may be the daughter of a king and the granddaughter of gods, but our Ari is no 'princess'. Yes, as the blurb on the back and the prologue will tell you, she's had it a bit rough the last few days and does need "a good lie down", but you know, you just know, that she's going to get up again and come out swinging.
The book consists of the story of the events that led Ariadne to this desolate island and is written in Ariadne's voice. No hemming and hawing for this princess though. She calls a spade a spade and often much worse, and I have to say that the book deserves prizes for the inventiveness of the cussing alone. It is hilarious and so real that you forget at times that you're actually in "Mythical Greece".
And that's the beauty of it. Behind the hilarity and the fantastically indignant voice that Jen weilds so effortlessly is the incredibly meticulous and ultimately convincing retelling - re-weaving, really - of a story as old as Western culture. It is fascinating to watch as the King and Queen of Crete, for example, are shown not just in all their terrible mythical glory but in their role as parents. Jen explores the relationship that Pasiphae and Minos have with their daughter and, for the first time, you see them as real people with real problems and worries and duties and obligations and fears and jealousies and all the rest of it. You see how they (and by extension, we) set traps for themselves and paint themselves into corners. But while you're reading all this, somehow, at the same time, Jen makes sure you are aware of the politics at work, of the cultural landscape of the age.
Ultimately, yes, this is a book about a girl finding her way into womanhood and working out her relationship with her mother, with her legacy, with other women, and with what it means to be a woman in any age. That's plenty already, but Ariadne manages to be more than that as well. By the time you read the last page you've travelled so far and back that it's hard to believe the book is actually only 200 pages long. There's the incredible tale of the Minotaur and the story of Theseus's battle with the beast, there's the story of Ariadne's sister Phaedra and their relationship, there's the story of how Ariadne ends up on the island. And then there's the 'real' version of all these events, as told by an Ariadne who will brook no romanticised nonsense in the telling of her tale. And I can't think of a better, more magical person to tell it than Jen Cook.