Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
First published by Canongate in October 2005.

Featured in Cover Characteristics: Flying Birds

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay...

I saw AJ Sterkel's review of The Penelopiad on her blog Read All The Things back in January and thought I might enjoy the book, so was then delighted to spot this reissue on NetGalley a few weeks later. I've had a copy of Homer's The Odyssey sitting on my bookshelf for at least a year now awaiting reading. I don't think I've ever actually read the whole book, although I know the gist of several of Odysseus' adventures, and I admit being put off by its 300-odd epic-poem-in-small-print pages. The Penelopiad's relative brevity was far more enticing!

Atwood focusses on what Penelope might have done and felt during the years Odysseus was away firstly at war and then 'lost' on his famous odyssey home, and has Penelope tell us her side of the story from the afterlife where she is still surrounded by many of the people she knew in life. Of one of her Suitors who still hangs around she says:
"The man was a pest when he was alive and a pest he remains."
Penelope's sense of humour frequently chimed exactly with mine so I appreciated her sarcasm and wry observations. For many years she is effectively a woman abandoned and emotionally alone so, while appearing strong to the outside world, privately she does indulge in an awful lot of weeping - one of the perils of a Naiad mother apparently. Too much water. Penelope is doomed to live in a state of limbo repeatedly hearing rumours of Odysseus' wanderings and minstrel songs of his adventures while never learning when or even if he will return home. I loved the dry interpretations:
"Odysseus was the guest of a goddess on an enchanted isle, said some; she had turned his men into pigs - not a hard job in my view - ... no, said others, it was just an expensive whorehouse and he was sponging off the madam."
I wasn't so enamoured of the Greek chorus of maids who burst into poetry or song every so often. I understood this inclusion as it is reflective of the original Greek sagas and a good way to advance the plot by several years in a few verses, but it didn't have the humour of the prose chapters. The maids themselves are perhaps the most hard done by, realistically so, in this Odyssey retelling. Abused and ill treated by the horde of Suitors, they are then the ones to face ultimate punishment at the hands of Odysseus and his now-adult son. Atwood researched a variety of sources for The Penelopiad and her interpretations of the maids' gruesome end was very interesting to me. Instead of taking the patriarchal tale at face value, she looks at scant clues remaining to offer a different understanding of their, and Penelope's, true roles. It's an idea I would like to see explored more fully.

Overall, I enjoyed much about The Penelopiad. It did feel a bit too much of an Odyssey summary in places and I think a longer historical novel from Penelope's viewpoint might have been more satisfying, but I liked how Atwood envisaged her and her world. I will now (eventually) go into reading The Odyssey itself from an angle other than the one Homer probably intended.

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London, England

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  1. I've only read one of Margaret Atwood's works (The Handmaid's Tale) and ever since reading it and loving it, I've been wanting to try some of her other novels but I've been a bit hesitant because of the whole worry of whether they'll measure up or not. I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed this, though, and it sounds like my type of humor (sarcasm is amazing and I bow to it). I'll have to read this soon! Lovely review, Stephanie!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    1. I hope you enjoy The Penelopiad!
      Other Atwood books I loved, both very different, are Oryx And Crake and Alias Grace.

  2. I struggled with the The Handmaid so I haven't tried another book by Margaret Atwood! I'll check out Penelopiad!

    1. The Penelopiad is a very different book. Much lighter!!

  3. I read AJ's review too! I have been looking for my second Atwood read to try. It sounds like it is a good story and well developed, but I can understand why you weren't keen on the chorus constantly bursting into song. :P

    1. The Penelopiad isn't 'typical' Atwood, but it's worth a read just for the humour