This was the absolute last book I read in 2015 – I read the whole thing on Christmas Day. Yes, it was a present. I’d already written my favourites of 2015 by then, but I had to revisit the thing, because this book was too good not to be on that list. It was by far my favourite read of December, and had to be on my favourites for the year. I’m totally in love. The first review I ever posted on this blog was actually of a rewriting of classical myth (The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller), and not much has changed – I’m still a huge fan of the genre.
The Penelopiad was my first Atwood, and I am super excited to get into more of her backlist after reading it. It’s a beautiful and intelligent revisitation, bringing to life the character of Penelope. In case you aren’t familiar, the myth Atwood is revisiting is Homer’s Odyssey, the heroic story of Odysseus’ struggle to get home after the Trojan War. He spends ten years at Troy and then ten years getting home from Troy. His wife, Penelope, is at home, staying faithful and fending off suitors who want to marry her, believing her husband dead (read: want to get their hands on the estate and the money).
I adore how Atwood sets out to give this woman a voice, a definition outside of her relationships to men or more famous women – not as Odysseus’ wife, Icarius’ daughter, Tyndareus niece, Helen’s cousin. As Penelope. Within this context, she explores how consistently Penelope feels measured up against the great names that follow her, and how she resents what she has become known for – her fidelity.
I was expecting a lot from this book, but I got even more. Penelope doesn’t just recount the old myth anew, she tells us of her life – or death – now, in the underworld which received her, and we learn about her time there, giving body to Ancient Greek myths of the afterlife.
What I found incredibly interesting is how Atwood reframes Penelope’s famed fidelity – not as virtue, but as the only choice she has. Penelope and Odysseus’ relationship is not heavily romanticised – a choice it would be very easy to make, to make her devoted to him and her resistance against remarrying the noble act it was written as. But Atwood shows us the far more honest embodiment – and demonstrates the absolute value of women writing women’s stories. Let’s be honest – only men could have come up with Penelope’s original narrative.
Penelope is not only holding out in chastity for her husband to come home. She is waiting for the only man she actually trusts not to hurt her – she is holding out against marrying someone she cannot trust, who will use her as a possession. Any one of the suitors will want her to die as soon as possible, and will certainly want to harm her son. Penelope’s faithfulness to Odysseus is a best bet, a refusal to relinquish the wealth of her husband’s land to a thief – to people who are deliberately using social codes and conventions against her in an attempt to impoverish her, to assault her serving girls. She acts on self-preservation, as well as fulfilling the job she took when she married. Odysseus acquired her as a possession – by means of trickery, which Atwood makes clear.
I also love how intelligent Atwood’s Penelope is. I was reminded of the many Tudor historical fictions I have read, and had to laugh at how little men in power seem to change – every wife of Henry VIII’s in fiction has a scene where she pretends not to recognise him in disguise, and Penelope does just the same for Odysseus ego here when he returns – something I far preferred than the idea she is actually ignorant to the moment her husband walks back into their home. The characterisation of Eurycleia also amused me no end, and I loved the relationship she has with Penelope.
My favourite part of this feminist rewriting though (and I’m sure conspicuous by its lack of mention so far, if you’ve read the book) is how Atwood reworks the fate of the twelve hanged maids. The tragedy of their situation is clearly, unambiguously identified: loyal to their mistress, misused by the men harassing her, used by everyone around them as property not people – and at the end of it all, punished for being abused by their master when he comes home. Their poetic verses throughout the story are a haunting, tangible presence, and remind us that Penelope’s is not the only voice which has been talked over in the history of the story: these girls have been ignored completely. Most of them not even named. Atwood makes clear – even if they were not perfect, even if they were young, or silly, or promiscuous for whatever reasons – these girls deserved better, from the narrative and from the history that remembers it.
I love the way that reading this made me recall and challenge how I thought about these women, rediscover characters I had never given much thought and pay them more mind. I will never consider the Odyssey in the same way again. For precisely that reason, if you are a fan of the original, this is a must-read. If you haven’t read the Odyssey before or aren’t familiar with the myth, this could function as a ‘way-in’ – prior knowledge of the whole context isn’t really necessary, as Penelope explains a lot of it in-text.
It’s absolutely obvious, I’m sure – I adored this book. I’ll definitely be reading it again, and I can’t wait to read more of Margaret Atwood’s work. I currently own The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin and The Robber Bride – any recommendations on where to start? Tell me in comments!
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