After discovering she is pregnant, the most famous mother in Greek mythology prophetically admits being “scared.” In Richard Matturro’s inevitable and absorbing Medea, she has every reason to be. Her troubles began long before the births—and deaths—of her twin sons. The Princess of Colchis (located in the Caucasus Mountains on the eastern edge of the Black Sea) is a practicing witch who lost everything helping her future husband Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father King Aeëtes.
Along with Euripides, Medea has fascinated artists including Chaucer, choreographer Martha Graham, composer Samuel Barber (who wrote Cave of the Heart for Ms. Graham), SFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen and master myth adapter Rick Riordan. Like this diverse group, Matturro too applies the well-known episodes of Medea’s life to mold them successfully into a novel that should appeal to those both familiar and new to her story. Her crime of filicide will come as no surprise with dropped hints such as “I never thought I wanted them,” or “…she had been living for years with something she thought she could not bear for an hour”—but is by no means condoned. However, because the author chose to make his female protagonist multilayered instead of a soulless bitch, her motivation for doing what she did is very clear.
Matturro goes to great lengths establishing Medea’s lifelong reputation as a “half-wit” shunned for her witchcraft, anti-social behavior and crossed eyes “directed at something else, some invisible thing hovering the vacant air between you.” Medea and Jason share nothing except sex. In her adopted homeland of Corinth (Jason’s choice, not hers), the closest thing she has to a friend is Lyctaea, a prostitute and perceptive outsider like herself. Matturo also writes of Aunt Circe the Sorceress, whose sharp stare is more dangerous than her spells. All three are interesting choices to comment on the invisibility of non-immortal women in Ancient Greece.
The author’s choice of language is also apt. Medea speaks directly and never shrieks. King Aegeus of Athens, who provides Medea with safe haven after her crime, personifies the spirit of his City-State. “None of us is very civilized when you come right down to it. The best we can hope for is a small improvement, a little advancement,” he tells her at their first meeting. Glauce, King Creon of Corinth’s daughter and Jason’s intended second wife had no say in marrying Jason, but also has no problem labeling herself “dull.” Medea’s treatment of this stupid girl is decidedly unsympathetic.
Then there is Jason. To Matturro he is neither hero nor victim. Many versions of this myth/revenge tale treat him otherwise. It is a refreshing switch. Here, Medea’s vengeance for his plan to divorce, exile, and gain sole custody of their sons surprises him—because he loves himself more than he loves anyone else. “You are the strangest, the most beguiling creature I’ve ever met,” he says trying to impress her with big words at their first meeting.” He goes on to tell her, “You scorch my skin,” a forewarning not for himself but for the people who, likeable or not, he used like Medea. The quest for the Golden Fleece brings Jason and Medea together and is immortalized in song and word, but is there any glory in a stealing a “curtain”?
Therefore, Medea is more realistic than revisionist. “Medea has a mighty soul,” Aunt Circe warns the unconcerned Jason. “Tamper with her at your peril.” He does, providing a valuable opportunity to see her side of a terrible story.