A while back, armed with a staggering number of Barnes and Noble gift cards, I took to Google looking for recommendations of good queer YA lit to buy. Most of those books are still waiting to be read in my bedroom, but I did read one immediately because I was so taken with the premise. The Greek story of Hades and Persephone, while oft-romanticized, is one of those stories that has many issues from a feminist perspective. The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer takes the original tale of abduction and imprisonment and reimagines it as a consensual lesbian romance.
From the back cover:
Persephone has everything a daughter of Zeus could want—except for freedom. She lives on the green earth with her mother, Demeter, growing up beneath the ever-watchful eyes of the gods and goddesses on Mount Olympus. But when Persephone meets the enigmatic Hades, she experiences something new: choice.
Zeus calls Hades “lord” of the dead as a joke. In truth, Hades is the goddess of the underworld, and no friend of Zeus. She offers Persephone sanctuary in her land of the dead, so the young goddess may escape her Olympian destiny.
But Persephone finds more than freedom in the underworld. She finds love, and herself.
Spoilers and a trigger warning for discussion of rape after the jump.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love well-done retellings of fairy tales and old myths. I love it even more when these retellings give the story a spin that removes the previously problematic elements. Add a queer romance in and I basically can’t throw my money at you fast enough.
One of the things I respected about this story was that it didn’t hedge about the fact that Zeus is totally a rapist. In most tellings of Greek mythology it’s alluded to, but in a “oh, Zeus will be Zeus” sort of fashion. In this, Zeus’s selfish sexual violence is a primary motivation for the plot: his rape and murder of Persephone’s first lover, a nymph, is what drives her to hate him. (Persephone and the reader do witness this happening, just as a warning to those who may pick the book up, but it only takes up half a page or so.) When she realizes that she is Zeus’s daughter and that she’s expected to eventually take her place on Mount Olympus with him, she’s desperate for an escape, and chooses to seek refuge in the one place she’s safe from him: the Underworld. Hades, the deeply misunderstood goddess of the dead, provides her with a haven, and in return Persephone brings light and peace to the often-troubled spirits of the dead. Along the way, they fall in love, and Persephone resolves to seize control of her own destiny. The book ends very differently than any myth I’ve heard, but it’s both empowering and heartwarming.
The other thing that was particularly refreshing about The Dark Wife was that, because of its fantasy/mythological setting, the reader didn’t have to sit through any angst about sexual orientation or discrimination based thereon. Rather, the setting of the story is one where same-sex attraction is considered normal and natural, and Persephone is not maligned for her love of a woman (only for her love of Hades in particular). Modern-day queer lit usually has to address both the coming-out process and the discrimination that queer people face. No deity ever asks Persephone if she’s sure she likes women, or if it’s a phase, or suggests that later she’ll have to settle down with a nice boy. In fact, she and Hades even get married eventually, and no one pays no nevermind to their genders.
This was a very quick read—I read it in an afternoon—but so, so worth your time. It’s a cathartic and empowering story about a girl who seizes her agency with both hands, confronts her abuser, and gets the girl and her happy ending because of it. Lord knows we need more books like that on the market.