Title: For the Most Beautiful
Author: Emily Hauser
Publisher/Date Published: Transworld, 2016
How I Got This Book: Purchased from Amazon.
Rating: 1 out of 5
Emily Hauser joins an impressive collection of writers who have attempted, to varying degrees of success, to take the behemoth epic war poetry of The Iliad and interpret the narrative for their own purposes.For the Most Beautiful tells the story of the Trojan war from the perspective of two female characters, Briseis, who becomes Achilles’ prize after the sacking of her home town, Lyrnessus, and Kryseis, daughter of a Trojan priest. I was so intrigued to see what new elements Hauser could bring to the story from the eyes of these two women, both so central to the story and yet so trivial in equal measure. I wanted so badly to love this book, and in the end, wanted it to give some depth and agency to the voices silenced by endless years of female subjugation. I hadn’t expected For the Most Beautiful to purport the female characters were more important than the traditional male leads, but perhaps offer more subtlety and humanity that the original poem could not. What I felt I got instead was so, so disappointing.
I’ll give credit to Emily Hauser for her Classical knowledge, and some of the imagery and descriptive passages, emotive language she uses can only come from research and passion for her subject. At times this shines through, and she poses some interesting questions about gender roles, family expectations and the complexity of grief through these women. I could even support the claim, if this was the claim that Hauser was trying to make, that both Briseis and Kryseis were integral to the story of the Iliad despite being marginalised. My issue is that I’m not entirely sure if that was what her intention was – I was so confused about what Hauser was trying to say with this book.
Perhaps my issue with For the Most Beautiful was that in attempting to give these silent characters, I felt that I ended up actually liking both of the women far less. I found the dialogue and motives for their behaviour so incredibly juvenile that I began to assume the book was intended for a YA audience (apparently it isn’t, at least it’s not categorised as such). There were choices made by Emily Hauser that I just couldn’t get my head around – that Briseis, a princess in her own right who has only recently been taken to a strange place, enslaved and given to the man who has murdered her husband as a prize for him to do as he pleases with, would so quickly choose to concede to his advances. I’ll concede, it gave her more agency – I had never entertained the thought that Briseis would willingly want to be with Achilles – but the choices she made were so frustrating, so seemingly illogical to me.
Kryseis likewise, came across as so painfully naive that it was cringe-making. I also felt that her role was given far more significance, that she transforms from fussing over her hair and awing over Cassandra’s finery in the palaces of Troy to spying for the Trojans during her time of capture. I’d thought that perhaps the aim of this was to create some pathos or create an underlying mood of futility in a world controlled by fickle gods, but the ending of the story just completely infuriated me and seemed so incongruous to the source text.
Overall I just wasn’t sure who this book was for. There are Classicists championing the book on the jacket, but I can’t see how anyone with anything more than the most basic understanding of the Iliad wouldn’t find For the Most Beautiful very rudimentary and at times patronising. I will credit, if you had no prior knowledge of The Iliad, or anything about Greek mythology, this is a very accessible version of some of the events in the Trojan War, horse-free. But as someone who loves these tales, this story, I was so disappointed and I wouldn’t recommend this at all.