Sometimes a book comes into your life that knocks you sideways and reminds you why you read in the first place. An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis is one of those books. Rachel posted about it on Twitter and I knew I had to read it. A Trojan War re-telling where Pyrrhus is a go-go dancer and Odysseus is a lawyer? Sign me up.
What I could never have predicted is the searing journey that this novel would take me on.
An Arrow’s Flight is ostensibly a re-telling of Sophocle’s Philoctetes. So when we meet Pyrrhus as a go-go dancer and sex worker in the city, we think we know where the tale will go. Whilst the setting is one that is new to the reader, once you have gained your footing in this unusual world, you are prepared for the upcoming plot: Odysseus will arrive, persuade Phyrrus to fight in the Trojan War, and, with the magical bow of Philoctetes, the Greeks will win. That’s the story. A tale as old as time.
Mark Merlis has a different plan for you.
Instead we read about gay identity, fate, and the destructive expectations of families. The tapestry that Merlis weaves highlights the pressures that Greek heroes were forced to confront and draws a parallel with the pressure to be straight and the fear of being queer in a heterosexual world:
He must already have acquired the habit of invisibility, keeping himself out of anybody’s sight, not just his father’s. As if anybody at all who looked into Pyrrhus would see what his father had seen. Or hadn’t seen: the vacancy, the hole where Achilles might have said valor should have been, where I have said scruples were lacking – both a little off the point.
These pressures were something that I had never thought to compare to each other, but reading this novel made me reconsider the ancient world and its mythologies in a way that is new to me. What more could you possibly ask a classical re-telling to do?
The AIDs crisis is referenced early in the book, but only in fleeting glances. Skim a line and you might miss it. The further that the novel progresses though, so too does this illness. It is raw and honest and heart-wrenching without ever feeling trite. The world of this novel is neither the ancient Greek world nor the modern world, so the illness is never mentioned by name, but the fear gradually infects every scene and the stark reality of living through that time, and the devastation that it caused so many, was palpable.
This novel is gripping and devastating and funny and real. It is also probably not for everyone. A knowledge of ancient Greek myth is expected of the reader, but if you want a straight (no pun intended) re-telling then this will disappoint. It is also not solely about queer history or explorations of sexuality. However, do you want a Trojan War re-telling that is also a comment on straight expectations, queer identity, the AIDs pandemic, and whether we can escape our fate? Then this might just be the book for you.