Tamara Agha-Jaffar just released the audiobook version of her first novel, A Pomegranate and the Maiden. The story draws directly from Greek mythology, particularly the story of Demeter and Persephone.
Young Kore is the daughter of the Goddess Demeter and Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods. She’s a typical girl, more interested in spending time outdoors with her besties than meeting boys. But Hades, God of The Underworld, spies her and falls madly in love. He asks Zeus for her hand, and without consulting Demeter or Kore, a deal is struck and lives forever changed.
Kore becomes Persephone and, as Hades’ bride, Queen of the Underworld. Despite her initial reluctance, she makes the best of a bad situation. Demeter is another story. She rails against both gods and humans in her anger at the marriage. A spurned mother is truly a woman to be reckoned with.
Narrative voices and story arcs
My biggest objection is the author’s use of shifting first-person narratives. For me, it doesn’t enhance the story. I’d prefer to spend significant time with three or four characters rather than get rotating snippets from eleven. Yes, eleven. None of the characters are done any justice by the head-snapping, short-chaptered switches from one to another.
(Edit, January 2019: My original impression was that all 20+ characters had a narrative voice in this book. However, the author just reached out to correct me. There are only eleven narrative voices, which for me is still too many. I believe it’s a function of listening to an audiobook instead of reading the print. My apologies for the mistake.)
For example, Persephone is the heart of the story, and yet Agha-Jaffar doesn’t delve into her experience in Hades’ Underworld. I wanted to know so much more about how they negotiated their relationship, given that Hades basically kidnapped her. Also how does a sunny, tree-hugging, nature lover manage in the soul-crushing darkness of the Underworld?
Another story arc I wanted more of was the relationship between Demeter and Persephone. It’s classic mother-daughter conflict, amped up with Goddess-level crankiness. Demeter thinks she’s doing the best for her daughter, while Persephone (and her younger incarnation Kore) chafes under the yoke of a controlling mother. Given the chance to escape, Kore quickly understands what the upgrade to Persephone buys her in terms of independence.
Agha-Jaffar has previously published a few nonfiction works, and that explains her approach to fiction. She’s a Ph.D. in English Literature, and spent 26 years in academia. Clearly, she’s devoted plenty of time to young people. Yet, her writing voice seems most comfortable in the older female characters, such as Demeter and Iambe, who is a creatively ribald crone character.
I found the book’s dialogue bordering on stilted, though. Demeter says of Kore, “She’s always running around. I never know where she is or what she’s up to …” This is definitely how a strong mother character feels, but the language is pedantic in its execution.
Agha-Jaffar skillfully introduces a feminist perspective into the mythology. Reading her bio, I found that she’s passionate about women’s studies in addition to mythology. In Pomegranate she effectively melds the two.
Her male characters are blatantly misogynistic, which is certainly accurate to the time of mythology’s invention. This perspective bolsters the feminist concepts, since Zeus and Hades are so obviously foils to Demeter and Persephone.
I much prefer the cover of earlier editions, which is why I’ve included it above. Given this female-focused story, I’d rather see Persephone as the main cover subject. Also, the audiobook cover is more muddy than dramatic.
I’m not generally a fan of author-read audiobooks. A professional voice actor or narrator adds depth and nuance. But I listened to Agha-Jaffar’s sample and thought her voice was pleasant enough. I’m certainly glad to have her correct pronunciation of the Greek names. Unfortunately, on the full listen, I’d say she had too much lecture in her tone and not enough drama. Still, it’s a good effort and not unpleasant.
On the whole, I found A Pomegranate and the Maiden to be agreeable but not stellar. I hope the author will keep exploring her interest in writing fiction and talking about women’s issues.
Many thanks to Tamara Agha-Jaffar for providing me with a copy of the audiobook so I could review her book. As always, my opinions are honest and entirely my own.