Readers might expect a retelling of the ancient Greek tale of Paris and Helen to be a bulky, wordy novel as useful for propping up a window on a hot summer day as for entertainment; but Jonatham Bennett’s contemporary version of the story is a slim, polished novel that one would need to lie flat to allow only a finger’s worth of breeze into the room.
“The newspapers from each of these countries, when published in English, bled together over time to read as one bleak story, one political struggle, one act of poverty. They weren’t of course. They all differed, in ways major and minor.”
Readers are meant to reach past the specifics, to something broader and far-reaching, well, mythic. Indeed, quotes from Ovid, H.D. and Tennyson provide the epigraphs to the work’s three parts.
“My child, these are the same ancient songs I’ve passed on to you. They are a part of this story. They are your story, they are part of everyone’s story who is from this country, whether from the South or the North.”
But for those who are familiar with The Iliad and other versions of this tale, undoubtedly pleasures await in the process of comparing and contrasting retellings.
(Readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Richard Powers’ Orfeo, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s All the Broken Things, and Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles will be familiar with the breadth of possibilities that exist for award-winning novelists in revisiting ancient tales.)
Even for those who are relatively unfamiliar, Jonathan Bennett’s work invites them into the foundation story as well, with the most well-known references to the original being recast just slightly to afford even the allusion-challenged to enjoy the interconnections.
“This story is the oldest story in the world, the one that launches a thousand dark dreams.”
However, readers who have read or reread the original source text will particularly appreciate the variety of perspectives offered on the old tales, in terms of affording “minor” characters a voice in this retelling. Some of these passages seem as though they could be lifted from a wholly contemporary tale.
“Priam was a dedicated family man. I can tell you, as we worked late into the night in the lead-up to a budget or whatever else was the pressing issue for the government of the day, Priam always ducked away for an hour. Got to tuck in my son, he’d say. He was not asking for permission the way some might. He knew where his priorities lay. Of course his son Paris is now a grown man and a notable physician working on the starkest front lines of delivering health care to our world’s most vulnerable populations in deplorable conditions. I spoke to Priam as recently as a month ago, and it was of Paris, and your important work, doctor, that he talked about most. There was never a prouder father of a son.”
Even more broadly, all readers will respond to the homage paid to storytelling in the most general way. This is what makes us human and, of course, what speaks directly to us as readers.
“I will tell it often, and in many different ways, until it becomes a part of you. This is the mother’s way of telling stories. This way is more permanent than writing, which may be lost or sold, or burned by others. This way will make sure that the story is in you, lives as you live. If you choose, you may change it as you like. You may give it away.”
There is a consistent emphasis on connection, not only between people and between places but also between the storyteller and readers who, it is hoped, will find resonance with these familiar themes in the space afforded by the storyteller’s broad strokes of story.
“In the end, if we are each able to find home in some way, a connection to place and country and another person who would die for you and for whom you would die, then that is more than can be hoped for from life.”
This is not necessarily about an intense emotional connection that is felt immediately and intimately, but across time and somewhat removed. “We would be each other’s home.” These kind of statements are sweeping and epic, but they are not intended to intensify readers’ attachments to individual characters.
Readers do not feel this, from either party’s perspective, but they are required to participate in creating that sensation, whether through memory or imagination.
Passive readers need not apply. But readers who appreciate the sense of an ancient and enduring tale will want to check-in to The Colonial Hotel.