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Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors so it is always with joy and great expectation that I embark on reading any book of hers. With my book group I read and adored the gorgeous prose of David Malouf in Ransom; a short novel about Achilles’s slaughter and desecration of Hector, and Priam’s attempt to ransom his son’s body in Homer’s The Iliad. So when my friend offered to lend me The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is a modern writing of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, I jumped at the chance. Apparently Canongate books commissioned some of the best authors of our time to retell a myth in a contemporary and memorable way as The Canongate Myth Series. It’s not surprising that Atwood accepted the task of writing a modern adaption of a myth considering that many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales. The other authors in the Canongate Myth Series include: Karen Armstrong, A.S. Byatt, David Grossman, Alexander McCall Smith, Olga Tokarczuk, Ali Smith, Salley Vickers, Dubravka Ugrešić, Michel Faber, Natsuo Kirino, Klas Östergren, Philip Pullman, Milton Hatoum, Victor Pelevin, Donna Tartt, Su Tong, Jeanette Winterson, Miloš Urban and Margaret Atwood.
Myths are universal and timeless stories that reflect and shape our lives – they explore our desires, our fears and our longings; they provide narratives that remind us what it means to be human.
It is fascinating to read the story of Penelope, the long suffering wife of Odysseus, written from the perspective of a fabulous feminist writer. In writing her version of the myth, Atwood drew obviously on Homer’s Odyssey but also Robert Grave’s The Greek Myths, which gives a lot more information about Penelope than offered by the Odyssey. Atwood is compassionate towards Penelope who was born a princess to indifferent parents (her father tried to drown her as an infant) in Sparta and was won in marriage after Odysseus cheated in the running race for her hand. Ithaca was now her new home but nobody welcomed her or befriended her and I feel for her exceptionally lonely existence. Odysseus was only with her for a short time before disappearing for 20 years to gallivant and bed goddesses. In that time Atwood builds for us a picture of the lonely life that Penelope led. She went from privileged princess with no useful skills to caretaker of the entire estate of Odysseus, learning animal husbandry and many other useful skills while raising their son as best she can despite the interference of the nurse, Eurycleia, that raised Odysseus. The majority of the novella is a first person account of Penelope, told from 21st century Hades. Throughout the story she maintains that she was chaste while waiting for Odysseus but then includes two passages that bring that into doubt, one is a section called The Chorus Line: The Perils of Penelope, a Drama which the Maids perform and talks about Penelope bedding all of the 100+ suitors; the other is when she and Odysseus are reunited in bed and she relates:
I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed … by sleeping in it with any other man. The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other.
Atwood sets out to explain why Odysseus hanged the 12 maids on his return to Ithaca. The story of Penelope is interspersed with 10 interludes by the maids (several types of songs, a jump-rope rhyme, a lament, an idyll, a ballad, a lecture, and a court trial) about their awful treatment as slaves available for rape by anyone who was interested in them, the indignity of being executed without trial, and gossip about Penelope. Having said that we don’t get to meet any of the maids so we don’t have the opportunity to feel a lot of empathy towards them. I wasn’t very convinced by the explanation for their execution and I was left feeling that Atwood didn’t achieve her aim despite devoting a portion of the book to the maids. I would have liked to see more of the book devoted to the maids, who were more interesting than dull Penelope. Similarly I didn’t become entirely convinced that Penelope was real but instead remained the idea of a woman to me and perhaps this is because Atwood couldn’t connect with her properly either.
It was probably unfair of me to embark on this slim volume with expectations of prose as lovely as found in Malouf’s Ransom and as a result I was mildly disappointed. In summary it’s a short and enjoyable read and provides chuckles along the way, it’s interesting to read a different perspective and to focus on a woman from the Odyssey, the rivalry between Penelope and her cousin Helen (of Troy) is amusing.
I sat there shrouded in my bridal veil, hardly daring to glance at Odysseus…But he wasn’t looking at me, and neither was anyone else. They were all staring at Helen, who was dispensing dazzling smiles…not missing a single man. She had a way of smiling that made each one of them feel that secretly she was in love with him alone.