Sunday 21 July 2019

Fabulous: Ancient tales transported to modern times and reimagined

Fiction: Fabulous

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Fourth Estate, hardback, 224 pages, €13.99

Eye for detail: author Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Eye for detail: author Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Fabulous, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Joanne Hayden

Myth is having a moment. The ancient tales, particularly the Greek ones, are so steeped in murder, war, exile, sexual violence and political turmoil that it's not difficult to understand why many writers are using them to hold a mirror up to the contemporary world.

It's been two decades since Canongate launched its Myth series - novellas reimagining myths from various cultures - but the last few years have seen a marked proliferation in adaptations. In 2018, Michael Hughes's Country and Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls both drew on Homer's Iliad in very different ways and Madeline Miller's Circe offered a fresh take on a character from the Odyssey.

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Modern variations on eight tales - each called after a character - this collection is part of the proliferation. One of the definitions of fabulous is "mythical" or "having no basis in reality", and while Hughes-Hallett's Fabulous reinterprets the mythical - and in two cases the biblical - it also has a strong basis in reality.

A critically acclaimed biographer, Hughes-Hallett was 65 when her first novel, Peculiar Ground, was published in 2017. Her erudition and deep understanding of the classics is evident throughout Fabulous; her thorough knowledge of the myths is partly what allows her to reinvigorate them - up to a point. She's good at creating distinct milieus, which is important because she's often looking at how her characters operate in relation to the communities they infiltrate, belong to or are in some way excluded from.

Her Orpheus is an elderly counter-tenor with dementia and a hospital is the fitting backdrop for his journey into the underworld. "He knew that a hospital was a place from which one couldn't count upon returning." A reflection on ageing and loss - the loss of sanity and status as well as the loss of a loved one - 'Orpheus' is also, of course, about relinquishment and hanging on. Following his wife's death, Orpheus almost dies too, but is resuscitated. He is dismayed, but part of the story's strength lies in how it navigates the ambivalence of a death wish co-existing with a desire for life.

In 'Actaeon', the title character (his name abridged to Acton) becomes an arrogant estate agent and Diana a director of the company he works for. Narrated by one of the company "hounds", who is more interesting than either of the protagonists, the story includes thoroughly credible descriptions of cut-throat deal-making but is constrained by Hughes-Hallett's efforts to align the ending with the myth.

This is the case elsewhere, too. She has a great eye for detail and is alert to the strangeness and potential of her raw material. Like Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber, she is partly trying to extract the "latent content" from the originals but she lacks Carter's wildness and nerve, allowing herself to imagine new worlds for the stories but rarely new endings for them.

The world of 'Pasiphae' is one of the most intricately realised. Here, Minos is a people-trafficking gangmaster who lives in a tower block because he likes "to be able to look down on a town from above". Passify or Paz reaps some benefits from her relationship with him but has no freedom; she is watched, guarded and expected to be sexually available. Minos's "displeasure was often expressed in carnal and distressing ways".

The town's seediness and edge are vividly evoked, from the underground labyrinth - a holding centre for "incomers" - to the kebab joint where Paz's lover, Toro, works, "turning the great lollipops of meat, and slicing fine slivers from them with a knife like a scimitar." A layered and thought-provoking reflection on displacement, 'Pasiphae' could be much longer but, again, doesn't get the ending it deserves.

The biblical stories, 'Joseph' and 'Mary Magdalen', are less dynamic interpretations. John as well as Mary Magdalen - who is a beauty therapist by day and a prostitute by night - narrates the latter story, neither character casting much fresh light on the other, or on the figure of Jesus who remains elusive and defined by his "no touching" directive.

Hughes-Hallett's prose tends towards formality and Mary Magdalen's voice is a strained mixture of lyricism and crudeness: "Where's the modesty in discreetly covering your top while I'm extracting follicles from your arse-crack?"

More resonant and something of an anomaly in the collection, 'Piper' - a retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin legend - is a cleverly condensed depiction of English small-town life. Hughes-Hallett's Piper is a saxophone-playing pest controller and potentially a paedophile. 'Piper' strikes the right balance between realism and surreality, and certain scenes have a tenderness that is largely absent from the rest of the collection. Crucially, Hughes-Hallett moves beyond the original ending, opening the story up.

The rest of Fabulous could have benefited from that same boldness; it's a shame that too often the license she grants herself is conditional and only stretches so far.

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