Old Tales Re-imagined: Florence and Giles and Chasing Odysseus

This week I’m reviewing two Young Adult books which draw on classic stories as their inspiration. Florence and Giles is written by John Harding and is “in the tradition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw” according to the book’s blurb. S. D. Gentill’s Chasing Odysseus is the first book in a trilogy drawing on Ancient Greek myths. This novel being based around The Odyssey.

Florence and Giles is a gothic tale of two orphans, the title characters of the book, who live in isolation from the world in a large ramshackle house. Their guardian is their uncle who has no interest in them, and their care is largely left up to the few servants of their home, Blythe House.

Florence narrates the tale in a strange and unique language. She has been denied an education at her uncle’s behest, yet having secretly taught herself to read must keep her love of books and words hidden from those around her (with the exception of her younger brother Giles). As such she has developed her own manner of speaking that displays a real inventiveness for language:

“Of a sudden, the crooning next door stopped and it pin-dropped. I curtained that at any second the connecting door would be thrown open and I would be redhanded, and fear froze me quite, the very blood in my veins turning to ice. Then I heard her voice, soft and low, ‘Ah, my dear, I could eat you!’ and I thought of that fiend but a few feet away, bending over my brother, saliva dripping from its lips.”

The unique narration of the book and the strength of Florence’s voice are a real highlight and show the mastery of Harding as a writer. He balances Florence’s naive voice well against the darker tone of the plot.

After the tragic death of the children’s first governess, a second – Miss Taylor – arrives. Florence becomes increasingly suspicious of Miss Taylor’s behaviour, convinced that there is something sinister about her. As Florence begins to fear for her brother, and feel she has no one left to turn to the story escalates towards a dark climax.

There is a clear sense of similarity between Florence and Giles and The Turn of the Screw. There are parallels in plot, although both are clearly separate stories (and not as I initially assumed the same with Harding’s as a retelling from a different perspective). The other big similarity is in the way voice is used. In both novels the events of the tale are delivered from a perspective that the reader begins to wonder about the reliability of.

Florence’s supernatural viewings make the reader suspect she may not be entirely sane. Yet her silence on the death of the first governess and some of her actions (although rationalised to the reader) also raise the question of how truthful Florence is in her recounting of events. Her sheltered upbringing where much of her knowledge is gleaned from servant gossip and novels do not make her the most informed individual. There is much to distrust about her – and yet she is an engaging narrator who draws you in and there always seems to be some truth in what she does say.

The novel’s chilling conclusion leaves the reader with an unsettling feeling. Like James’ novel, the interpretation of the book is something that will differ from reader to reader.

Gentill’s novel, on the other hand, is much clearer in showing where its inspiration has been drawn from. Chasing Odysseus is much more focused on its source text, The Odyssey. Through the retelling of the classic hero tale it raises issues of how it is the victor who controls history’s narrative.

The book is about a girl named Hero and her three adopted brothers who live in a herding community in the mountains outside of Troy. Hero has grown up with the war between the Greeks and Troy. When the war finally ends her people are accused of betraying Troy and lose the safe haven of their mountain community.

Hero and her brothers set out on a quest to demand the truth from Odysseus as to how the Greeks breached the walls of Troy and so clear the name of their people. Following the journey Odysseus takes the four children encounter sirens, cyclops, gods and magic.

This retelling offers a very different view to that which Odysseus is associated with as a valiant hero. He is reimagined to be not so heroic as he would seem. Gentill points out the moral flaws in the original Greek myth that often seem so forgotten about today.

In particular, the idea that war is not glorious and that women often have terrible crimes committed against them amidst the violence of conflict. Gentill’s description of Troy as the Greeks have invaded it highlights a more horrific view of war:

“They made their way slowly, through streets slippery with the blood of their countrymen, towards the palace. They fought as they had to, and both the sons of Agelaus killed men in battle for the first time. Neither took pleasure in it for despite their Amazonian mothers, they were Herdsmen. The faces of the warriors who died upon their swords stayed with them. The wet thud, as flesh gave way to blade; the final fear in the eyes of courageous men.”

Despite the interesting view the book’s revisionist nature takes, it failed on one point for me. When it came to sex and rape Gentill chose to reference them, but never confront them directly as say he does with violence (the above quote being an example). There is a sense that the issue of rape and sexual exploitation wants to be raised, and indeed sex was referred to in the original tale. However, it also feels as if these specific issues are being skirted around in order to be not too confronting.

The book does fall into the YA category and its easy to see the marketing and audience limitations that would come with too graphic a reference. Yet it does feel that the author has held back on this front and that something is missing from the novel.

I’m interested to see where Gentill goes with this trilogy. In particular, because if sticking to Greek myth the character of Hero comes to a tragic end. Also because I’ve always found the Greek tale she features in to be a little simple and nonsensical (the whole story seems to be there was two lovers where one did lots of swimming to see the other and then he drowned so the girl Hero killed herself).

What I do think is important about both these books is the way they re-imagine old tales without skimping on quality themselves. It can be a daunting thing to go up against an established tale for your inspiration or to retell it, yet both Florence and Giles and Chasing Odysseus manage to do it without falling flat on their faces. What’s more, due to the YA audience, they bring the classic tales which inspired them to a new generation.

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