Book Review: Sister of Grendel by Susan Thurston
For readers familiar with Beowulf, the oldest English epic to survive in writing, Susan Thurston’s debut novel Sister of Grendel offers a fresh journey back to that world. What results is more than just a female perspective on the familiar Beowulf tale. Thurston begins with the ancient epic but creates the character Rehsotis and a genealogy of a race of beings, the Anathians, as they try to coexist with humans (called “the Smallheaded”). The Anathians are forced to hide underground as they continue searching for a safe haven.
British literature purists may take exception to Thurston’s rendering of the original story. She follows the spirit of the long-running conflict between Grendel—and his kind—and the Scyldings of Heorot, leading up to the final fatal battle between Rehsotis’ brother and mother and Beowulf the Geat warrior. Rather than remaining slavishly loyal to that text, though, Thurston weaves an even more gruesome story of death and mayhem, which results in a much higher body count. In each of those battle scenes, she places Rehsotis where she can witness the action, hidden by her magical powers.
The bulk of the narrative takes off only after those fatal encounters. Rehsotis becomes a kind of archetypal hero on her own journey seeking a home and her own people. Thurston creates a world as clear and credible as More’s Utopian or any of Swift’s fabled lands in Gulliver’s Travels. Left alone, her only kin dead and her fellow Anathians fled, Rehsotis sets herself adrift in a “sea-case” until discovered and taken in by monks on a remote island, who simply call her “Orphan.” During this sojourn, she must prove herself, facing mistrust because of her difference. Here, as throughout the novel, she occupies a separate dream life, able to inhabit and even interpret the dreams of others. Her own dreams lead her to Yargis, another lone creature of her kind, resulting in passionate love before he disappears without explanation during her brief absence.
Thurston presents a race not intellectually inferior to human beings; indeed, Rehsotis values the power of language, particularly the written word. Readers will likely shudder at the destruction of illuminated manuscripts and whole libraries under attack by enemies. The first-person narration only suggests physical details. Rehsotis is at least a head taller than most of the characters she encounters and covered in hair, but these features are only mentioned incidentally, allowing readers to focus more on her similarities to humans rather than her differences. At times, she provides brief passages in her language or of those she encounters, enough to give verisimilitude without becoming an affectation,.
When Rehsotis arrives at a village of the Akkarans, a race similar to the Anathians, whose “songs include words [she recognizes” from [her] mother Anathian tongue. When Tambor, an Akkaran, offers a graveside eulogy in her tongue strikingly similar to Old English—sharing common words, but needing translation—Thurston follows with the English:
Stirring the ashes into the content of the bowl, Tambor calls,
“Deze as wordt me. Ik word deze as.” This ash become me.
I become this ash.
Passages describing the natural world border on poetic without distracting from the story itself. Thurston artfully places her reader in the world she creates for her character, from times of drought to plush vegetation. She opens the tale in the Anathian Labyrinth, “where a brilliant light flows like water,” evoking all the senses as “Music of reeds and drums fills the air and vibrates.” “Lights swirl and flow” at first, “sweet as honey, then sour as vinegar.” The world suggested in Beowulf becomes even more immediate in the details Thurston incorporates into the story.
The scenes in which Rehsotis discovers victims of plague likewise set the novel’s tone without becoming gratuitously graphic. Trying to avoid detection, she slips into a village of the Smallheaded. The sight, she says, “pulls my stomach tight, and bile rises unbidden into my mouth:” Corpses are side by side on the floor. A monk sitting in the middle of the room, his hand resting on his plate, looks “as if the blood and fluid have been sucked from it, with nails long and yellow, knuckles and bone in mummified relief.” When this fantasy crosses paths with historical reality, readers find themselves more willing to suspend disbelief.
Thurston uses one trait of the Anathians, their life span far beyond the expected three score and ten, to her advantage. Spending some periods in a state of hibernation, Rehsotis survives to witness major changes in world civilization. Only in the final episode, nearing modern day, does the purpose and structure of the tale become clear. Her final human relationships are kept at a distance as she observes a small family unit—a cruel abusive father, a mistreated mother, and their daughter, who is aware of Rehsotis’ presence. The girl Ruthie becomes the ideal recipient of Rehsotis’ life story, leading the girl to observe in the epilogue, “All story distills to one essential conflict: strength versus strength. . . love versus hate; time versus memory; hope versus despair.”
Nancy Posey has taught English at high school and college levels for 27 years. In addition to book reviews in various print and online journals, she has published essays and poetry, including her 2009 chapbook Let the Lady Speak. A voracious reader and writer, she maintains a book blog, The Discriminating Reader. She recently moved from North Carolina (“The Writingest State”) to Tennessee, where she continues to teach as an adjunct professor and plays her mandolin.