REVIEW by Maya Wood

07/01/2014

The Story of Antigone

by Ali Smith (retelling of classical myth)

The Save the Story series is a project aiming to bring classic stories to a new generation of readers by having contemporary authors retell them. This project, originating in Italy, has found a British publisher with Pushkin Children’s Books – whilst the stories themselves span countries from Russia to Greece, or Ancient Greece in this case. The Story of Antigone is retold by Booker Prize-shortlisted Ali Smith and illustrated by Italian artist Laura Paoletti, with lovely results.

Antigone is a young Theban princess, an orphan whose brother Polynices has just been killed in battle. King Creon claims that Polynices is a traitor and so his body must remain out in in the open to be eaten by crows. Anyone who tries to bury him will be stoned to death, yet this is exactly what Princess Antigone wants to do. Her sister tries to talk her out of it but Antigone is adamant – she will bury her brother’s body no matter what the consequences. “‘I’ve got to die anyway,”’ she tells her sister. “‘I’ve got to be dead for a lot longer than I’m going to be alive.”’

This version of Antigone’s story is narrated by a crow, a clever decision on the author’s part for the way it allows her to talk unemotionally about death. The crow can describe what happens to a body left out in the open in a matter-of-fact way that young readers can easily accept. Living humans, to the crow, are ‘still-alives’, while the dead ones are just food, and she scorns dogs as hypocritical for being loyal to still-alive humans as well as eating their dead bodies. Yet even the ‘tough-hearted, worldly-wise’ old crow is moved by Antigone’s actions.

Of course, King Creon soon receives word that Polynices’ body has been scattered with earth and wine, and orders his guards to find whoever was responsible for honouring the remains of a traitor. The guards bring Antigone to him, and at first Creon thinks it’s a joke, asking why his niece is under arrest. He soon decides that she will still face the death penalty, even though – as we soon discover – Antigone is engaged to marry Creon’s son, Haemon. He attempts to talk Creon out of killing Antigone, protesting that the whole of Thebes will mourn her and that it could potentially have consequences for the King. Although Creon takes this into account and decides not to have Antigone killed outright, he instead commands his guards to wall her up inside a cave.

If this all sounds a bit miserable for a children’s book, there are moments of humour here and there that make it less so. The crow’s observations are often amusing but some of the funniest characters are the city Elders, who can only speak in (increasingly bad) rhymes. It’s a sad story, certainly, but at the same time it’s funny and very witty.

Retellings of classic stories are a fantastic way to introduce children to the originals and this intelligent book certainly sparks an interest. The last chapter of The Story of Antigone consists of an interview between Ali Smith and one of her characters, the crow. As well as being a particularly entertaining piece of writing, it also explains more about Sophocles’ original drama and how the moral questions it raises are still relevant today.

Story aside, the actual book is beautiful. Different sizes and colours of font are printed on thick cream paper, and the illustrations scattered throughout are wonderful. It’s a delight to read and only gets better with each rereading, of which children – and adults too – will certainly want many.




       


previous review: All the Truth That’s In Me
next review: America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt



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