"Helen of Troy" is the latest offering of the amazing historical novelist Margaret George. She writes very long books encompassing the whole life of a real person, bumps and all. Her work on Henry VIII is the ultimate for Tudor fans, her novel on Cleopatra was beyond compare and now we have this-a very good book, but not her best work.
Unlike her past novels "Helen of Troy" feels more like a story and less like a total life history of the narrator. Not that this is bad, but even though some scenes are included this book has very little of Helen's early life or later life, focusing mainly on the war of Troy. Some of the mythological info on Helen's early life, such as her abduction by Theseus, is even left out of this novel, which acts to give it a more normal feel and make Helen an unusual, but not extraordinary woman of her time. Thus it is more of a story novel, and a bit unlike her past works.
When I read earlier this year "The Memoirs of Helen of Troy" by Amanda Elyot I said that Helen was a poor choice of narrator for her own life story. Ms. George proved me wrong in this. While Ms. Elyot's Helen was conceited and selfish, Helen in Ms. George's book is a normal woman of the time-and for all that she's beautiful, she may not be the most beautiful woman in the world. There is even doubt in this novel as to Zeus being her real father. Thus as a narrator, Helen does a great job of bringing the tragedy and beauty of Troy to life. She's a real person that it's pretty easy to identify with.
I also liked how Ms. George handled the Greek gods in this book. They were real, but elusive, changeable and not understandable by humans. They could be terribly mean and see it as kindness and acting to placate them was a large part of daily life. Ms. George strikes a good balance between fantasy and religion in her handling of them.
I would give this book a solid four stars. Not five because unlike her earlier works (such as her novel on Cleopatra) this novel is not mesmerizing-it does not sieze your attention in and hold in it place. Still though, it is a good novel and by far the best retelling of the Troy story I have read.
"Helen of Troy" is a very good book, but it's not author Margaret George's best work. Because Helen is a mythological character, many of the details of her life are rather ambiguous, and so George took many more liberties with this novel than with most of her other books. However, the core of the story remains true to popular mythology. When Helen is a young girl, a seer predicts that the beautiful Spartan princess will be the cause of great tragedy. Helen goes on to marry Menelaus and become the queen of Sparta. The marriage lacks passion, and when Paris, a young Trojan man, visits Sparta, he and Helen fall madly in love. Helen decides to escape with Paris to Troy, leaving her family, husband, and daughter Hermione behind. Helen's actions bring about the Trojan War, and many lives are lost as a result.
One of the problems with this book is that Helen is not a very likeable character. George tries to portray Helen as a strong woman, which she is, but she's also an incredibly selfish person who rejected her family, abandoned her daughter and her duties as queen, and caused a great many people to die...all because she was lusting over Paris. It's hard to come to terms with all that, even though George does her best to gloss over those rather huge portions in the story. As a result, the pacing of the book is rather tedious in places, and failed to capture my attention like "The Autobiography of King Henry VIII" and "Memoirs of Cleopatra." Still, George is a great storyteller, and as someone who is very interested in mythology, I enjoyed reading this new take on a classic tale. "Helen of Troy" is a worthwhile read, but I definitely prefer George's earlier works.
Margaret George brings her epic storytelling talents to the myth of the Trojan War in this engrossing and lush novel.
Helen never feels quite as "real" as George's Cleopatra, or her Henry VIII (though it was often less than pleasant to be inside Henry's head). I can't blame the author for this. Cleopatra and Henry lived lives that have been well-documented by history. With Helen, no one is sure whether she ever existed at all, and the myths that tell her story say little about who she might have been as a person. I think George did a great job using what was available to her, piecing together disparate strands of myth, drawing from what is historically known about how people lived in that period, and making Helen and her loved ones as three-dimensional as possible. I especially thought the development of Helen's relationships with Menelaus and Paris was realistic.
I also liked the treatment of the gods. For most events, George offers both a divine explanation and a mundane one. The reader is left to decide what to believe. One exception was Laocoon's death, which would be hard to explain without divine intervention!
What I wanted to see, and never did see, was a confrontation between Helen and Paris about the "most beautiful woman in the world" issue. Early in the book, Helen refuses to marry any suitor who utters that phrase. Later, Paris recounts to Helen his encounter with the three goddesses, but doesn't tell her what Aphrodite promised him. At the end of that scene, Helen reflects that she had yet to find out what he had been promised. I thought George was foreshadowing an eventual revelation, and I was waiting for the storm that would break when Helen realized Paris had chosen "the most beautiful woman in the world." That scene never came. I will say, though, that the conflict Paris and Helen did have was well-handled and in-character for both of them.
The sack of Troy, when it comes, is frantic and tragic and frightening, and the slow gray wistfulness of Helen's later years is done perfectly, I think.
A good book for a long weekend.
on February 16, 2007
I found this book to be terribly long - with the emphasis on terribly. It really dragged for me, and although I enjoyed it in parts, I never really loved this book, as I did George's books about Mary Magdalene and Henry VIII.
George did not give us a character we could identify with - but maybe that is the essence of Helen of Troy and Paris. They were very selfish people who tried to disregard the reality of how their lives were affecting everyone else. Or maybe they did care, as George so frequently tells us, if fate had meant it to be, there was nothing they could do about it. Ah ha, another Greek Tragedy.
I would give this a 3 spears out of 5.
Make no mistake: Margaret George's Helen of Troy is indeed a doorstopper of a book, coming in at over 600 pages, and it could very easily have become bogged down in endless unpronounceable names and illogical storylines. Happily for the reader, the author pulls you in early on and builds the story layer by layer until you realize you've been entrapped in her words that will not let go until the final pages...and probably not until long after that.
This is, of course, the legendary story of Helen of Troy, the "face that launched a thousand ships", and her lover Paris, with whom she leaves all she's known, including a husband, a child, and a kingdom. George has fleshed her characters out well; she's given Helen enough conscience that her guilt feelings seem real, yet we understand why she chose to leave with the god-like Paris. Upon entering Troy, Helen begins to realize the fall-out of her actions will reach much further than simply destroying her family. George gives us the tension leading up to the warfare between the Greeks and the Trojans and though we know the ultimate outcome, it is still heart-wrenching and exhausting.
I really enjoyed this novel. Having been a long-time fan of George's, I found this novel to be a better written and more fascinating glimpse into an historical figure (real or not) than Mary Called Magdalene. Helen, with all her faults, comes through as a woman tortured by both love and loss. George is particularly good at bringing all the warring factions and heroes to life and she keeps them separated by their actions and personalities. I found this to be a credible, fascinating look into an era of history I knew relatively little about. Recommended.
on March 23, 2007
How do I put into words my experience reading this novel? I've only read of the Trojan War from YA fiction--or children's fiction--and, therefore, this novel took me to places and ideas I had never conceived--let alone explored--in the Trojan saga.
Helen, despite her obvious character flaws (she abandons her daughter for lust--I'm a stay at home mother to five, so I find this repulsive), is a sympathetic character. Yes, there are times when you want to whack her on the head and make her stop being so self-obsessed; but, over-all, the author manages to make her someone whose future you care about--even if you cannot relate to her.
After watching the movie "Troy", it was nice to see Paris depicted as someone for whom a woman might leave her duties as queen to follow to a far-away city and become just one-of-many princesses. Menelaus was depicted just so, so that Helen's choice for him as husband, her choice to leave him, and her choice to live out her life with him after the war were all believable. Now Achilles--some may dislike his depiction in this novel.
While the Trojan War is a tragedy, we get little tidbit of justice in the author's novel, as she introduces a post war story I had never read about before. I was disappointed that I didn't get to find out what happened to some of the characters I had grown to care about; but this was, after all, Helen's story, told from her POV, and she would have no way to know how their stories ended. (I had never even contemplated what might have happened to Helen after she was recaptured before reading this novel.)
I thought George was masterful in how she handled the gods of the era. As she states at the end of the book, a personal relationship or dialog with your god is still something people can relate to today, and so her characters also have personal dealings with their gods. However, some of the more fantastic deeds of the gods are not brought in for simple fact that Helen was not privy to what occurred on Mt. Olympus. Brilliantly done!
I simply must add that I respect the author, Margaret George, all the more because she managed to write about Helen without having any gratuitous s*x in it. I could allow my daughters to read this book and they would not learn anything new (s*xually speaking).
Overall, this book is thicker, by simple page count as well as by how meaty each individual page is, than some people will like. If you are looking for a quick, light read, this is not the book for you. Some of it this novel is extremely sad, and some difficult to read, and I cried.
However, if you enjoy literature and historical fiction, and you don't mind a book that may take a week, or even a month, to read--depending on how busy you are--and you don't mind a book that may disturb you at times, or whose heroine isn't a saint, then I recommend "Helen of Troy" to you.
4 1/2 stars. It had a few slow spots.
on April 10, 2013
This is one of those books I've been meaning to read, but didn't get to until now, published in 2006. Here's a somewhat meandering review, more a collection of my reactions/thoughts than a formal review. Margaret George writes historical fiction set in a number of periods from Cleopatra to Elizabeth I. I worried from a distance that someone who jumped around like that might be skimpy on the research and historical accuracy. Then I heard her speak at the Tucson Festival of Books, and I realized she is both very smart and has a great deal of integrity about just that issue. So I approached her gigantic Helen of Troy (606pp) with interest--the period I most care about by someone who cared to do it right.
Her approach to Helen is comprehensive. She starts with Helen as a small girl and takes her all the way through the Trojan War, back to Sparta and beyond. Besides making for a long book this also makes for a slightly amorphous book. There isn't a clear focus or drive--whatever is next up in Helen's life, that's what we'll get. I don't mean George didn't lay out a plan, but there's often a lack of tension and a willingness to include information and scenes just for their enjoyment and detail. I happen to like an abundance of historical information and setting detail, so that's fine by me, but it's not a page-turner. Her portrayal of the Mycenaean world is quite faithful to Homer for the most part, which means it isn't always faithful to the most modern historical understanding of that place and time, but Homer is a good place to be. Her Troy is a Greek city, with only slight differences from the world of Sparta that Helen has left. The historian in me knows there's been some updates on that--scholars no longer think the Trojans were Greek speaking, for example, nor that their material world was Mycenaean but rather closer to the Hittite cultural world to their east. But this is a mythologically based book so I'm content to immerse myself in this Greek world, which is quite vivid and does reflect pretty accurately what we know about the Mycenaeans.
The most compelling things about Helen of Troy, besides the abundance of detail of daily life and war in ancient times, are George's character portrayals. Helen starts out quite ordinary despite her half immortal parentage, except in the area of her startling appearance. Other than golden hair, George resists telling us what makes Helen's appearance so unusual. In this she takes her cue from Homer and paints Helen through the reactions of people to her rather than description. Helen acquires her visionary insights and her outsized passion from the gods as she goes along rather than from an inborn nature. She objects to being so special in appearance and as far as personality, she stays in normal human parameters: strong-willed at times, intelligent and perceptive about people and their faults, able to take command in times of need, but often an observer more than a doer. The magical sorceress-like character that sometimes appears in the myths and Homer is not present here except in rumors that Helen rejects.
Although Helen and Paris go through a rough spot in their marriage, George has them cleave to each other to the end. Some readers of Homer would see a Helen who has grown bored and disgusted with her Paris long before the end of the war, so that's an interesting and conscious choice.
Achilles is pretty much despicable through and through. He's violent and mean spirited with only one or two moments, for example in the face of Penthesileia's death, where he shows any positive actions or feelings at all. I've always been partial to Achilles, seeing him as the laudable existential hero of the poem, so I'm not with George on that read, but there's plenty in the tradition to support her portrayal and it works very well with her overall storyline. I think it does reduce Achilles and therefore the whole Trojan War aura, but her portrayal of Hector's nobility and her redeeming of Paris make up for that. Paris is a far more heroic character here than I would have been able to imagine, and I enjoyed that vision a great deal. It was fun and made Helen's choice far more satisfying.
George uses some clever, if occasionally a little contrived, devices to put us on the scene with some famous moments in the Iliad. The novel is told from Helen's point of view, but she wanders in her inner vision onto battlefields, and at other points she observes private moments as an eavesdropper, such as the farewell scene between Andromache and Hector and their infant son.
The tragedy of Troy's destruction is George's tour de force. As a reader I felt it in my bones. I wept with Priam and Hecuba and the growing bleakness and despair is beautifully depicted. She makes you want to reach into mythological history and rewrite it, make the whole thing come out differently, even as you read along knowing no such reprieve will come. That's good writing, for sure. The final parts in
Sparta and then back to Troy have less emotional kick to them, but given her choice to portray Helen's whole life, they are unavoidable.
I enjoyed George's Helen of Troy. There are probably pieces here and there that could have been edited out to carry the story forward more quickly (I can hear my critique partners/editors laughing at me--that's always what I have to do), but if you love immersion in history, George excels at that and you might object if parts were removed.
on November 29, 2006
This was the first book that I ever read by Margaret George. It was a large novel (over 600 pages), which started quickly then came to a screeching halt. As a lot of people I am familiar with the Iliad and the many other stories, movies and renditions of the Trojan War, so learning of Helen's early life was fascinating. The pace of the book was quick and kept me hooked in. I looked forward to taking a cup of tea and going back to ancient Sparta. When Helen got to Troy the book slowed down so much it was the equivalent of slamming on the breaks in your car when a deer darts across the road. I understand that the Trojan War was an important "event" in Helen and Paris' life, but George got into the minutia too much. It took too long to actually get to the point where the Greeks arrived on the Planes of Troy. This part of the book and Helen and Paris' life in Troy could have been condensed considerably. The point of Helen's relationships with the Trojan Royal Family could have been gotten across to the reader in a lot less pages for as much importance as it had in the end. George does this in several other parts of the book by wrapping up Helen's seven years in Egypt in less than four pages. She gets her point across and the story doesn't lose anything in the telling. The story ends nicely and is an acceptable ending based on the build up of the very well developed characters. I have nothing against longer novels, but think this retelling of the Trojan War, could have been much smaller and still been a great read.
Remember your college Greek mythology classes? If your memory is a little fuzzy, it will all come flooding back to you when you read Margaret George's Helen of Troy. Ms. George recreates the story from Helen's point of view and beginning with Helen's childhood, she paints a fairly vivid picture of Helen's family, her home of Sparta, and the circumstances that led to her sad marriage to Menelaus. When Paris enters the picture, as I'm sure you remember, it's pretty much game-over and the beautiful Helen is spirited off to Troy, leading to the infamous Trojan War.
Peripheral characters make the novel quite enjoyable: Priam, Agamemnon, Cytemnestra, Odysseus and Hector, amongst others, all make a good showing and are quite developed, character-wise, for a novel this length. (I'm sure 638 pages seems like a lot, but for the legend this encompasses, Ms. George had to condense quite a bit here.)
Now for my reaction: I never quite developed any sympathy for Helen and Paris. Their utter selfishness came across as irritating, as opposed to uncontrollable fate. I continually felt the need to give Helen a slap and tell her to "buck up." Paris came across as immature - not a man to fall in love with, but a boy who feels entitled to whatever he wants, at any cost. The supporting cast is delightful, however, and made the story worth a read.
This isn't a so-called "heavy read" by any means. It rather strikes me as something that might be classified as a summer beach novel. Fun, but not serious historical fiction.
on August 25, 2006
I am a big fan of Margaret George, having read four of her five books. I only recently received "Helen of Troy", and what a delight--I couldn't put it down! Although I also truly enjoyed "Cleopatra" and "Henry the VIII", I enjoyed this offering best of all. It completely captivated my interest and--it was truly more compelling and captivating than watching the movie with Brad Pitt! Seriously, though, I believe Margaret George is the Queen of Historical Fiction and her writing in the first person is just incredible and pulls you into the story as if you are experiencing it firsthand. If you have read her before, you won't be disappointed. If "Helen of Troy" is your first read, I'm sure you'll buy her other books! All are great vacation/winter reads!