I received an e-arc of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book in any way.
Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making.
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope – wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality – and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
Well, what a read! I read a couple of Margaret Atwood’s novels before and was absolutely fascinated by them, so when I had the opportunity to read this retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view I couldn’t let this chance go by! As usual, Atwood doesn’t disappoint. Despite being essentially a monologue with chorus intermissions, this is a gripping read: I would have easily finished it in one sitting, but life got in the way… Of course, this is helped by the fact that it is a fairly short book. Still, I felt it to be exactly the right length.
In this faux memoir, we view daily life through Penelope’s eyes, and are granted front row seats to one of mythology’s greatest romances… or was it? Most people are familiar with Odysseus and his wonderful travels, but for once we are invited to leave adventure to one side and consider what it must have been like to be left behind. As the years go by, during and after the Trojan war, Penelope is left to manage her household in Ithaca, which for her is a foreign land, at a time when women (even princesses) weren’t exactly at the top of the social pyramid. Left to fend for herself and unsure of who can be trusted, Penelope grows wonderfully in her role as head of the household. A highly intelligent woman, she develops her managerial abilities and devises clever schemes to improve her household’s revenue and living conditions. Until a group of suitors decides she needs a new husband to manage her…
Building on a well-known myth, this book manages to bring a fresh perspective to a classic tale. We are privy to all of Penelope’s worries, traumas and dreams and this is essential in improving our understanding of an often side-lined character. She truly feels real, with her frustrations and family pressures, her need for love and friendships, and her struggles against societal norms and a teenage son. Penelope is a well-rounded character that develops significantly through the novel, and definitely holds the scene. Other characters are less developed, and while this would normally be a definite negative for me, in this case I found myself accepting it unquestionably: it is The Penelopiad after all! I loved the chorus intermissions with their different styles and formats, and found them to be an extremely original way of portraying a collective voice from frequently ignored characters (in this case, the servant girls) and to introduce controversial narrative points.
Under the cloak of myth retelling, The Penelopiad offers an excellent starting point to reflect on issues still current today, such as gender and socio-economic inequalities or marriage and parenting. Highly recommended!