The origins of Sarah Underwood’s debut novel lie in just a few lines of The Odyssey. After his return to Ithaca and his slaughter of Penelope’s suitors, Odysseus suspects that twelve of the queen’s maids have betrayed her and taken lovers among those suitors. Homer named only one of the maids – Melantho; twice she coarsely insulted the disguised Odysseus after his return. She and the other maids are summarily hanged on the seashore, by order of Odysseus.
Underwood borrows Melantho’s name, but nothing of her character. In this novel, she and the hapless maids are the sexual victims of the suitors – the 17-year-old Melantho was brutally raped by Eurymachus. The maids’ innocence is no protection – they are still hanged. Their murders are to echo down the years for, enraged by Odysseus’ treatment of his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, during his wandering journey home from Troy, Poseidon curses Ithaca. He demands that, each year, twelve young women of the kingdom are to be sacrificed, hung on gallows along the tide-line. The bodies must be offered up to the ocean to appease the sea god. If not, Poseidon’s furious waves will ravage Ithaca, destroying crops and reducing its soil to infertility.
Melantho’s death is temporary. She returns to life upon the island of Pandou, newly created to serve as a burial place for the sacrificed victims. It is Melantho’s destiny to watch over Pandou, burying the bodies as they are cast up on the island each year. Very occasionally, one of the murdered women comes back to life, as Melantho had done. Each of these survivors is determined to break Poseidon’s curse by assassinating the current ruler of Ithaca, thus preventing him giving the order of execution. Their attempts have not succeeded.
Underwood’s narration is engaging. Beneath the title of each chapter is the name of one of the novel’s three major characters; throughout the chapter, Underwood positions her reader close to that character, their thoughts and actions. Melantho is one of the protagonists; the second is Leto, daughter of the former royal oracle of Ithaca, destined to be the last of those occasional survivors. After Leto’s corpse stirs into life on Pandou’s beach, she and Melantho make plans to return to their homeland to kill its ruler. Over the following months, Melantho teaches Leto to harness the magical forces of the sea – she will need such powers if she is to break the curse. As the two women work together day by day, an unhurried, intense love grows between them.
We have already met their intended victim, Mathias, Prince of Ithaca, the third of Underwood’s protagonists and the focus of a dozen or so chapters. He is no arrogant tyrant, but an 18-year-old who also longs to end Poseidon’s curse which, each year, requires him to give the order to murder twelve of his subjects. He is lonely, troubled. He has lost two dearly loved sisters, his mother openly despises him and he faces an arranged marriage with a foreign princess, whose dowry Ithaca needs to replenish its treasury. The unfolding story involves sustained excitement and danger, contrasting with the slowly explored love between Leto and Melantho. That love is to be tested, for having returned to Ithaca intent upon killing the prince, Leto finds herself drawn to gentle, thoughtful and vulnerable Mathias – which is difficult for the watching Melantho.
The story is extraordinary in its invention. Alert reading is needed, for the crowded plot with its underlying web of curses, oracular prophecies and sweeping movements through time (sometimes over centuries) might well lead to some confusion. Approaching the conclusion, the dilemmas facing the three protagonists seem irreconcilable, but Underwood provides an ingenious resolution which fuses the worlds of humans and gods. I intend only admiration in noting that the publishers’ release tells us that Ms Underwood is 23 and seems to have written her novel while studying for an MPhil at Cambridge. Watch this space.