Ever since I went back, earlier this year, to teaching Euripides’ Medea, I’ve been on the lookout for a new Medea-related myth retelling. Medea pops up as a minor character in the forthcoming Atalanta by Jennifer Saint and The Heroines by Laura Shepperson, and other places too, but I hadn’t run into any versions with Medea as a main character– until I heard about a new Medea retelling, set in 18th century Calcutta, which is coming out later this year. As you can imagine, I was very keen to read it!
In this version by Rani Selvarajah, Medea becomes the Indian Princess Meena and Jason becomes James Chilcott, nephew of the villainous head of the East India Company. On the eve of war, James waltzes into the palace of Meena’s father and demands her help to secure gold from the Nawab, in exchange for information he holds about his uncle’s next military campaign.
The first thing to say about any Medea retelling is that there are big boots to fill. Euripides’ version is so rich in characterisation, tension and plot twists that no other version since has eclipsed it (not even Ovid’s lost version, reputedly – although I wish I could see for myself!). So taking on Medea is a daunting task. But the idea of reimagining her situation in an Indian colonial context seemed to have a lot of promise, and as a Classics graduate herself, the author clearly knew what she was getting into.
I really wanted to like this version – I tried so hard! And in the end I did find a lot to appreciate. But for me, the dialogue was an unfortunate weak spot. I didn’t find it appropriate to the period (far too many instances of ‘Okay, fine!’ and even a ‘gobsmacked’) and for me it lacked any sort of charm or sparkle. The characterisation, too, was disappointing. Meena’s power comes mainly from her wealth and privileged position, rather than from her own skills or character, while James is smarmy from the very start, and their relationship comes across as implausible to say the least. James isn’t on a quest of any sort: he just wants gold. The motivations don’t make sense, and the characters don’t behave in a consistent way.
Another thing I struggled with was how to feel. From the outset I was clear on my obligation as a reader: to hate the brutal colonisers. That was easy. The atrocities of the East India Company are laid out very clearly, and every representative of Britain is clearly out for his or her own gain, with no concern for who they might hurt in the process. The treatment of Medea as a foreigner, which is such a striking part of Euripides’ play, also comes through sharply, as Meena and James move to the Cape of Good Hope, and then on to England, and the racism on display from all sides is a clear factor in the plot development. But amongst all of that, I was hoping to be able to side with the Indian characters – and I couldn’t. Meena’s family are all cast as vicious, greedy, abusive, inclined to betray one another, and almost as unconcerned about the welfare of their own people as the British colonisers are. Even Meena herself is… well, let’s just say that the violent elements of Medea’s story are fully retained in this new version, without the persuasiveness that helped Medea to play on the sympathies of both the other characters and the audience. The only character left to root for is Meena’s exiled aunt, who pops up in a memorable episode with exuberant witchy flair. All of the other characters I found deeply unlikable right from the start.
Reservations aside… once past the first half of the book, and in firmly Euripidean territory, the writing picks up, the plot builds speed, and for a while I couldn’t put it down. It’s interesting that knowledge of Euripides’ version actually adds to the tension: the reader knows that there is horror to come, and the only question is how it is going to manifest. I have to admit that it was compelling: I couldn’t do any chores for a whole day because I needed to finish it! And there are a few surprises in there too, along with lots of respectful nods to Euripides’ version.
So would I recommend Savage Beasts? On balance, I’d like to, although with some misgivings. I didn’t like the writing and the initial love story had plot holes you could drive a dragon chariot through – but there’s a lot to be said in its favour. It’s a great, original idea, and it plays on the stock elements of the Medea myth cleverly at times. It’s also an excellent tool for thinking about the foreignness of Medea/Meena and how that intersects with other elements of the myth. Rani Selvarajah has done something really unusual with this novel, by transplanting the myth into a completely different historical context which nevertheless shares core elements of Jason and Medea’s worlds, and I’m glad I read it.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Cora Beth Fraser
Savage Beasts by Rani Selvarajah will be released in paperback and ebook on 25th May 2023