Sunday 22 February 2009

Book Review: Margaret Atwood - The Penelopiad

As a child and teenager I absolutely loved Greek mythology (or folk stories or myths and legends from any country) and have been fascinated with their impact on modern English, so allusions to anything of this sort still catch my attention. I have also enjoyed other books by this writer – especially The Handmaids Tale.

Kooky Little Sister passed this book to me and told me about the new collection by Canongate Books, of famous authors who have each re-interpreted a famous Greek myth. In this case it is the story of Homer’s Odyssey re-told from the point of view of the main character Odysseus’s wife Penelope. The original legend tells the story of how Odysseus and various other Greek heroes got roped into the ten-year war between Greece and Troy to bring back the beautiful Helen, then how he spent the next ten years trying to get back home and finally what he finds on his return.

Atwood’s re-telling is given a thoroughly irreverent treatment. In the legend Penelope is the steadfast, faithful and intelligent wife, waiting for Odysseus’s return – almost an afterthought of a woman. Her maids are slaughtered and forgotten by Odysseus in the book for seemingly assisting his enemies. In this book although Penelope is long dead, she comes across as bright, feisty and very, very human. She is annoyed that her husband has left her to bring back Helen (who is portrayed as a vacuous mean bimbo with no remorse for the death she has caused). She is eager to please him and recognises that her needy behaviour will chase him away. At the same time she is unable to admit her jealousy of Helen (also her cousin).

Penelope has to deal with a wayward teenage son and awkward in-laws as well as get-over the damage caused by her own unloving parents and take over management of the kingdom in Odysseus’s absence.

One of the things that is unique about this book is the treatment of the maids. Atwood comments that she has always been intrigued at the way they were slaughtered and forgotten about in the original story. In this book Penelope is heart-broken that her maids, which she has raised from childhood are killed and has to hide her feelings. The maids themselves are dead but furious. Every chapter of the book is interspersed by a poem, song or shanty sung by the maids to remind us of the heinous crime committed against them.

I loved the way a great legend with superhuman masculine characters has been taken and brought back to earth because of a woman’s realistic perspective: Helen may be beautiful, but she is also a cow, Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, bravely goes in search of him in the legend, in this book he gets told off by his mum for messing about. She also doesn’t like his unsavoury looking friend Mentor either, who is the legend is the goddess Athena in disguise.

A short, entertaining, easily-read book.

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