Monday, August 6, 2018

The Penelopiad- Margaret Atwood

I read Madeline Miller's 'Circe' recently. It was an impulse kindle app buy when I was staying with my mother and didn't fancy the book I'd bought with me. I must have seen somebody be enthusiastic about it, and it had a list of excellent reviews so it seemed like a good bet. It was. It also made me think of Atwood's Penelopiad, and as I had that to hand it made sense to read it again as well.

Penelope has a significant presence in Miller's book too so it was interesting to compare the two versions of her, and I'm always interested in the Odyssey. I remember being read a child friendly version of it at primary school which was more than enough to hook me into the Greek myths, and make me want to read as much as I could. There was a cartoon set in space but based on the Odyssey at about the same time, which left less of an impression but reinforced the power of the story.

I read E. V. Rieu's translation published by Penguin classics when I was 17, an earnest A level student, and still very impressionable, also long before I understood that translations are interpretations. It's times like this when I think I could quite happily spend the rest of my reading life concentrating on a close reading of different translations and versions of the same story cycle.

I first read 'The Penelopiad' not long after it came out (2005), and after decades of accepting Penelope as the dutiful wife at home, and never really questioning the fate of the maids it was a jolt out of complacency. It still has the same affect on me.

The thing about encountering something like the Odyssey at a young enough age is that you don't really question any of it. Atwood's book is all questions, most of them uncomfortable. Who was Penelope, what motivated her, who did she care about, what lies did she tell, what kind of wife was she, what other versions of her are there, what did she know? And here there's the question of how complicit she was in the murder of her 12 maids, who form an angry chorus throughout the book.

This Penelope is unreliable, at least as a narrator, ever changing, jealous of her cousin Helen, cynical, capable, clever, frustrated - a real woman with all the imperfections that implies, and all the interest too.

There's a quote on the cover from The New York Times which says Determinedly irreverent- which seems about right. That irreverence is a useful thing to bring to The Odyssey, it also leaves me with more questions about Penelope than answers, which again seems right - it's a reminder that this story is still a living changing thing, and to not stop questioning it.


  1. Thank you for the very thoughtful discussion of this book. I like the context it gives me about The Odyssey and its related stories. Now I need to read Circe, The Penelopiad, and probably re-read The Odyssey. I love reading a series of books on one topic or theme! I just read 2 about the dust bowl in 1930s USA.

    1. It's something I really enjoy too, and it's why I love books that make me want to know more/ask more questions, and then follow the trail they make.