Daughters of Sparta

Written by Claire Heywood
Review by Misty Urban

Heywood retells a timeless story with fresh insight and poignancy in this debut novel exploring the battles fought by the women of the Trojan War.

Alternating between the viewpoints of Klytemnestra and Helen, Heywood begins with their childhood as daughters of the King of Sparta, when Klytemnestra, the ambitious and dutiful older sister, first finds her fate changed by her beautiful younger sibling. Both girls long for marital intimacy and companionship from the powerful men they marry, and both find their marriages lacking in different ways. When Paris shows up halfway through the book, Heywood has so skillfully built Helen’s inner life that it’s quite understandable why she runs away with the handsome prince. Equally convincing, and wrenching, is Klytemnestra’s stunned rage and grief when her husband Agamemnon sacrifices their beautiful daughter Iphigenia for a fair wind to war.

The key events of the famous epic are only touched on, but the emotional resonance is by no means slight: Heywood doesn’t spare the grief of Andromache, or Queen Hekuba, or the young princess Kassandra as their men are killed and Troy burns. Home in Mycenae, Klytemnestra enjoys a joyful union with the noble Aegisthos, but hanging over her head is her vengeful promise that, if her husband returns from war, she’ll kill him herself. The trappings of the Bronze Age tale are present, as well as the seeds of the great Greek tragedies. But stripped of ornament or the intervention of the gods, the direct, luminous pose is a setting for human longings, ambitions, and vanities, as when Helen realizes the armies aren’t actually fighting for her: “What did men ever sacrifice for the sake of a woman?” This is my favorite version yet of this oft-told tale, making dimensional and persuasive characters of much-mythologized women. Highly recommended.