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A Wonderful Retelling of a Classic Tragedy
on 21 October 2013
In this retelling of Antigone's story, originally written as a drama by Sophocles around 422 BC, Ali Smith takes the surprising and original decision of having a crow as the narrator. It is the crow who observes young Antigone while she decides to go and bury one of her brothers after a terrible battle which left both her brothers dead - one a hero and one deemed a traitor. The king of Thebes may have decided that his nephew Polynices was a traitor at the time of his death and as such doesn't deserve a burial, twelve year old Antigone can't bear to leave her brother's body out in the open to be eaten by animals and slowly rot away. Fully aware that the penalty for honouring her brother's remains will be her own death, Antigone still goes out of the city to find his body and bury it.
Antigone's act of defiance doesn't go unpunished but since this is a Greek tragedy in the truest sense of the word, it comes as no surprise that the King's cruel treatment of young Antigone results in devastating consequences for him and his family. Because this is of course a story about power and those who would abuse it as much as it is a story about love and loyalty. Maybe Ali Smith explains it best when she explains her reasons for writing this story to the crow in the last chapter of this book:
"...that the story of Antigone, a story about a girl who wants to honour the body of her dead brother, and why she does, keeps being told suggests that we do need this story, that it might be one of the ways that we make life and death meaningful, that it might be a way to help us understand life and death, and that there's something nourishing in it, even though it is full of terrible and difficult things, a very dark story full of sadness."
Having the crow as the narrator of this story is a stroke of genius on Ali Smith's part. The crow can describe the horrors of what happens to a body left in the open, without burial, in rather gruesome detail much easier than a human voice ever could. We expect some cruelty from animals like crows, and it will be much easier to accept the facts shared in this story - especially for young readers - when they come from this rather dispassionate point of view.
Like I said in my review of "The Story of Gulliver" these books are part of the "Save the Story" series which aims to bring classic stories to a new generation of readers because these stories should never be lost. All the stories in these books have a message to share; a message that was important at the time the story was written and has lost none of its importance in the years, decades or centuries that have passed since. These books give young readers the opportunity to become acquainted with important stories that have stood the test of time while at the same time giving them the opportunity to think about some big issues. And all of this is achieved without the books ever feeling preachy or educational.
This book is once again a work of beauty, and I am not only referring to the story. This is a high quality hardback with the words printed in a beautiful font in two different colours and accompanied by wonderful illustrations. This is the sort of book you will love to own, will be proud to have on your shelves and will want to keep even long after your young reader has moved on to other books and genres. In fact, even if you do not have a young reader in your life you could do a lot worse than getting the books in this series for yourself; especially if, like me, you're only vaguely familiar at best with the classics being retold here.