The allure of reinterpreting the myths and legends of antiquity seems undiminished. There are almost too many to count, recent examples ranging from Colm Tóibín’s House of Names, a retelling of the Oresteia, and Kamila Shamsie’s modernisation of Antigone, Home Fire, to Pat Barker’s Iliadic The Silence of the Girls, published later this month. As with watching the remake of a beloved film, it’s easy when reading a retold myth to settle into spotting what’s different or has been discarded entirely.
In Country, the strongest of this trio of novels with classical inspirations, Michael Hughes revisits The Iliad. His opening – ‘Fury. Pure fury. The blood was up.’ – establishes his approach: to cleave closely to Homer’s original. Irish writers before Hughes, including Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, have leaned on Homer and other ancient texts to capture something of the bloody history of their own country. Here The Iliad is transposed to a trouble-torn Ireland in 1996. The Greeks are transformed into an IRA cell planning an attack on a military base. Nellie, the wife of one of the fighters, has become an informer and eloped with her British handler, so retaliation is on the cards. But Achill, a feared fighter known as the Border Sniper, is refusing to fight, slighted by his commanding officer’s stubbornness and pride.
Hughes’s inventiveness in creating Irish equivalents for the characters and plot moments of The Iliad is consistently thrilling. Odysseus is Sid and Patroclus is Pat; the latter became Achill’s comrade after ‘they’d shared a cell in the Maze when Achill was in for membership, and Pat for possession … that’s