Book Review: Ariadne Unraveled by Zenobia Neil

Ariadne Unraveled is a retelling of the myth of Ariadne and Dionysus. The novel opens with Ariadne waking up on the shores of Naxos realizing that Theseus has abandoned her, then goes back in time to tell the story of what brought here there and follows her forward through the aftermath of Theseus’ flight back to Athens without her.

Things I liked about the novel:

It invited me think about how connected the ancients were to the natural world, to the cycles and rhythms of the seasons. This is fairly rare among novel retellings that I’ve read this year and generally.

The way Neil reimagines relationships is interesting to think about, not only Ariadne and Dionysus’ but also Pasiphae and the bull’s, Minos and Poseidon’s, Ariadne and Theseus’. Neil draws on Cretan prehistory and ancient myth in a thought-provoking way.

The novel does not try to force linearity and rationality into the at times very different narratives that have come down to us. Dionysus’ portrait across ancient sources can vary wildly (pun intended). Neil draws on a range of source materials, but she lets the contradictions sit rather than tidying them up into a coherent narrative.

A few observations:

Neil doesn’t always seem in control of the story. This is especially the case with the characterization of Dionysus. Reading this novel made me appreciate, once again, how difficult it is to create a coherent narrative around such different versions of the same figures and stories. I appreciate that Neil didn’t force it; at the same time, it can feel like random versions of Dionysus are plopped into the story without comment, leaving me wondering why it’s there and what, if anything, we’re meant to make of Dionysus’ various guises.

There’s a fair amount of generalizing out of the specific, an example being sentences like, “The promise of a man was worthless.” I dare say many of us make these kinds of generalizations often enough; I’m sure I do, anyway. Perhaps it’s because this kind of rhetorical move is so rampant these days that it feels past time for a gentle reminder (to myself as well): Anecdotes are not evidence of a pattern. And while I’m here: Correlation is not causation.

There is quite a bit of very explicit sexual content. I won’t say it had no purpose, because I’m sure it contributed to item one under things I appreciated about the novel, but that part was not for me. If it is for you, though, I recommend this novel for readers who enjoy retellings.

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Ariadne Unraveled by Zenobia Neil

  1. First of all, I love this book’s title! Very clever!
    Secondly, I did not know that Ariadne went on to fall in love with a god! I guess I just always saw her as this abandoned figure. How interesting, and good for her! Get it, girl!
    Lastly, this book sounds really interesting and I’m putting it on my TBR. When I get to it (bearing in mind that my TBR would now be, like, a mile long if I printed it out), I’m really looking forward to discussing it with you because some of the things you said here, like the author not always being in control of the story, really intrigue me.
    Thanks for an intriguing review and a new reading recc!

    1. I will be so excited if you read this so that we can discuss that issue of narrative control. It can be such a slippery one. With this book, I feel it in the abrupt shifts of tone and mood around Dionysus, where it doesn’t hang together. I think of something like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where the charming slides into the sinister in a way that feels entirely under control, but I think (emphasis on “think”) that Neil does not quite manage this kind of firm grip on what the story is saying…well, we will see what you think!

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