Alexander Glass on a novella by Priya Sharma
In under a hundred pages, Pomegranates (Absinthe Books, 2022) retells and reinterprets the myths of Demeter and Persephone, addresses climate change and patriarchal violence, and paints vivid pictures of a present, a future, and a mythological eternity, across which these themes unfold. Priya Sharma, winner of the British Fantasy Award for her story ‘Fabulous Beasts’ (collected in All the Fabulous Beasts) has managed to do all of this with a light touch: the prose is unhurried, the story unforced. The novella form fits the work exactly.
There are three main strands to the tale woven here. The first concerns the underworld: Hades is dead, and Persephone grieves. She refuses to leave her realm, and so a continual winter descends. The second follows Dr. Ursa (‘Bear’), in the consequent winter of the world, hunting seeds for the Demeter Bank (the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). The third returns to a time and place very like our own, and a woman found lost and apparently confused; she gives her name as Demeter, and says she has lost her daughter. The strands interweave, of course, and comment upon one another; and in between the strands a Greek chorus intervenes repeatedly to comment on, and question, events.
Some recent retellings of Greek myths have sought to restore the female voice that the original sources – and some other modern retellings – have neglected or deliberately devalued. But Pomegranates does not quite fit with Pat Barker’s take on the Iliad, The Silence of the Girls, nor with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad or Madeline Miller’s Circe – not because it is a lesser work, but because it is doing something slightly different. In its fearless, energetic combination of myth and reality it recalls Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, and like that book it is infused with sadness and wry humour (a brief appearance by a preening Hermes is very funny). But it seeks to cut through the sanitised versions of these myths and, peeling away those layers, finds horror and rage and hope, much like the stories in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. There are also hints that the three narrative strands are even more closely linked than they appear: as in Neil Gaiman’s The Kindly Ones, it may be that whether something is myth or reality is a matter of perception. Also, as in that work, the key unifying note here is grief: grief for a lost child, for a lost mother (Bear’s mother, also a Dr. Ursa), and for a lost world.
Sharma has a gift for eidetic imagery – ‘The Nile froze solid’ – and for breaking, elegantly, supposed barriers between multiple genres. Pomegranates is both apocalyptic SF and retold myth; but Sharma does not shy away from including elements of horror as well. Some of these are on a large scale: human culpability for loss of biodiversity, for the climate crisis, and for how the victims of both are treated, are all starkly drawn. On a more individual level, Demeter’s rapes (by gods and by mortals, as in the typically brutal source tales) are portrayed directly, not graphically but with an unflinching eye. A powerful scene sees Demeter being prepared for the hostile questions that are likely to be put to her, as the victim, in a rape trial.
The matter of the rapes is addressed frankly, the violence reflected in the way the characters speak of it – the words seem to slam down on to the page. Other aspects of the story are painted with a fine brush. Some have assumed that Dr. Ursa is male, others that they are female. The book remains carefully and deliberately silent, and the chorus gives Bear the plural pronoun. Bear is linked to Hecate, the Moon Goddess, though the link is – again, deliberately – not overt. In addition, Demeter’s relationship with her daughter, and Bear’s relationship with the senior Dr. Ursa, are complex and carefully drawn.
The reader is presented with multiple narrators (Persephone, Bear, and a third person narrator for most of the sections concerning Demeter) and varying forms: the book incorporates extracts of Demeter’s clinical records and part of an academic address by the elder Dr. Ursa. The chorus is rendered as excepts from a play. By turns bleak, lyrical and poetic, and wryly humorous, the prose shifts its form to its purpose, section by section and sometimes paragraph by paragraph (something Roger Zelazny – another writer who spun myth and science fiction and fantasy together – also enjoyed doing). In Sharma’s hands, it works.
Soon enough – the book can be read in a single sitting – the threads are drawn together, and cut, and then tied off. Sharma allows the story to end on a note of hope, both for the characters and for the world; and the resolution is fitting both as a piece of re-engineered myth – with the pomegranate still at its core – and as a story of people who have suffered and who can, at least partly, heal each other.
Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.
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