There is a new Holmes in town who walks alone, stumbles quite often and is yet to notice the elementary among the mundane. It is Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister, Enola Holmes (‘alone’ spelt backward). A film on her starring Millie Bobby Brown is currently streaming on Netflix, and is based on the first book in the series of the same name by Nancy Springer. An origin-story, it details the life of Sherlock’s sister, an anomaly in 18th century England. She doesn’t embroider, is unaware of when to bow. Instead, she is clued to ciphering word clues, learning jujutsu with her mother (Helena Bonham Carter) and reading ancient books from the library. Her life changes when she wakes up one day to find that her mother has left without as much as a warning. What follows is her journey to find her mother where she also ends up finding herself.
Enola Holmes is one of the many books which take a ‘male-dominated’ character as a point of instance and unspools the world around him from a female perspective. Several authors like Margaret Atwood to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni have done it earlier.
Here are some instances.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Have you ever wondered what Odyssey’s wife Penelope was doing while he was fighting wars and sleeping with goddesses? According to Homer’s account, she was a faithful wife who waited for her husband with her coterie of maids. She maintained their kingdom of Ithaca, kept herself away from the many suitors who would arrive at her doorstep and even managed to bring up their son. And yet, her story sounds too convenient, a crutch merely to the great Odyssey’s journey.
Atwood, in her book, rectifies this. In her reimagining, she details what Penelope must have gone through to keep the suitors at bay, but more specifically draws her up as a flesh and blood person acknowledging her effort and selfhood. It is a wildly entertaining book, befitting of an Atwood narration, but most importantly a timely course correction.
The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Notwithstanding the role of women in mythologies, they are hardly accorded the privilege of being the storyteller. Stories are spun around them but never really read from their perspective. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni changed it with The Palace of Illusions, a reimagining of Mahabharata by Panchaali, wife of the Pandavas. Informed by her perspective, the familiar tale is defamilarised. We read about Panchaali’s strategies of being wife to the five brothers, the way she balanced her relationship with them, her equation with Krishna, and her closet desires.
The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
Tóibín is a gifted storyteller, and in this 2013 Booker long-listed novel, he goes back to the ancient man in the history – Jesus, but tells the known story from his mother’s perspective. As the title suggests, The Testament of Mary is a provocative, compelling novella about Mary as he paints her picture with vivid details. Mary here is an old woman staying alone after her son has been crucified. She does not agree with the narrative that her son is the child of God, neither does she consider his death to be a much-needed sacrifice. She reprimands herself for not being able to save Jesus and tries to comprehend the events which will eventually form the narrative of the New Testament.
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste
If there is anything common between history and war it is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. And this is particularly true for narratives and narrators. If history is often told from the perspective of the victors, wars are retold from men’s points of view. In both, there lies no space for women. In Shadow King, the Ethiopian-American writer changes it.
Maaza Mengiste sets her novel against Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia and for a change turns the gaze to focus on the women who went to war. By tracing a story hitherto untold and freeing the past from the narrative crutches of victors, she in a way rewrites history. The book has been shortlisted for Booker this year.
The Liberation of Sita by Volga
The story of Valmiki’s Ramayana is lodged into public consciousness down to Rama’s exile and return to Ayodhya. But much like other myths, the women are relegated to the background as a convenient narrative prop. Volga changes it in The Liberation where the writer charts Sita’s journey after being abandoned. While her husband considers his role as the king of Ayodhya and is tormented by the absence of his wife, Sita walks the path to self realisation aided by other female characters like Surpanakha, Urmila, Renuka and Ahalya
It is not just a subversion of one of the most told stories in history but a compelling instance of an author prying open literary spaces for women and bringing her back to the discourse with dignity.
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