Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin. (FSG Originals)
Earlier this year, Sharma Shields came out with The Cassandra. It’s a retelling of the Cassandra myth, but now Mildred is the one cursed with the gift of prophecy. Taking place in Hanford, Washington, during WWII, she does her part—albeit small—in developing the atomic bomb. Eventually, she tries to warn everyone about the horrors the bomb will ultimately reap upon the world, but they are brushed aside and dismissed as Mildred’s hysteria.
This is an apt retelling, showing how the themes and conflicts are still applicable to our current society. I think you all should read it. It’s fantastic. Along with The Cassandra, I keep seeing retellings and updates to myths, like The Song of Achilles and Circe, and it seems like there is a major resurgence in the literary world.
Now we get Nina MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung, a reimagining of Ovid’s epic poem The Metamorphoses told from the perspective of the female characters. This modern retelling gives us monsters, nymphs, and demi-goddesses as they experience love, loss, rape, revenge, and transformation. I love that these myths are getting an encore and we’re provided with a better perspective. Women are no longer set pieces used as a means to push a man’s story forward. Instead, we’re getting the complex and compelling points of view that women have always deserved.
I was nine years old when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet came out. Since I had older siblings, I was made aware of this movie and, boy, did it open me—and a whole generation—up to Shakespeare. Not only did it make the play accessible, but it made it cool.
My hope is enough people read and share Wake, Siren to bring this point of view into our collective consciousness, ultimately influencing a greater change.
There are moments in Wake, Siren where I saw the outline of mythology attaining that same upgrade, and I hope it makes a new generation find a newfound appreciation for it. MacLaughlin has an ear for dialogue and dialect; and by using this skill, I think she is tapping into something much deeper than we can even see now. Roots are being set for this book and I suspect the momentum will grow and spread to a whole set of young writers and readers, hopefully changing our overall outlook.
Originally, the stories and myths treated women as a means to tell us about the preoccupation of men rather than the opinions and imaginations of women. Women were seen as the givers of life in an age when the processes of conception, fertility, and childbirth were still deeply mysterious and little was understood. Because of this, as a PBS article points out, many of the mythical stories about women manifest signs of deep male anxiety about feminine power. This is why having books like Wake, Siren and The Cassandra are so important.
Writers like MacLaughlin are taking back the stories that were stolen and used to perpetuate a fear-based outlook of all women. Because women were misunderstood, we got work that demonized them and the powers they were thought to have. Something I noticed again and again in Wake, Siren were characters transforming into trees for self-preservation. They’re given this power to morph into something that will protect them, but only when evasion has failed as a defense. Women are forced into a prison as a successful defense. They’re given one last chance to save themselves and have to give up their entire lives for that safety. From a man’s perspective, this looks like the women have won; but in reality—and from this new perspective—we can see it’s wholly unfair and a deep loss for each of them.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses was first published in 8 A.D. And now, over two thousand years later, we are presented with a unique take that feels new, timely, and authentic. Our societal foundations are skewed, so it’s nice to see Nina MacLaughlin doing her part to bring much-deserved balance. Art is something that will have longstanding effects, and my hope is enough people read and share Wake, Siren to bring this point of view into our collective consciousness, ultimately influencing a greater change.