by Margaret Atwood
"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 rumors, 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 is 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.
This year I'm taking part in the Retelling Challenge hosted at The Daily Prophecy, so it feels right to review a retelling in the first month of the year!
Over the past few years retellings have been hugely popular in many different mediums. Whether it's a book like Cinder or a film like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters we just can't get enough. Despite their recent popularity retellings aren't new; most myths, legends and fairytales have several incarnations from the moment of their conception, which is why so many of us around the world have different ideas as to how Rumpelstiltskin or Little Red Cap ends.
Now retellings are branching out in the literary world, and it's great to see! There are fairytale retellings like Cruel Beauty and Strands of Bronze and Gold, but now even classics are getting a new lick of paint with books such as Isaac Marion's Warm Bodies, based on Romeo and Juliet, and Diana Peterfreund's For Darkness Shows the Stars, based on Jane Austen's Persuasion.
And, as can be seen in The Penelopiad, mythology isn't getting left out either!
The Penelopiad tells the story of Homer's The Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus's long-suffering wife Penelope. In this book Penelope is given the chance to tell her side of the story, and throughout her account her twelve maids, hanged by Odysseus at the end of The Odyssey, act as a haunting Greek chorus.
Before reading The Penelopiad I hadn't read any of Atwood's fiction - I still haven't read The Handmaid's Tale, but I'm hoping to cross it off my TBR this year! - and I was nervous I wasn't going to like what I read because she was an author I'd heard so much about and wanted to like. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.
I loved the way Atwood played around with the story of The Odyssey, and particularly with our perception of Odysseus, throughout the book. She certainly gave Penelope a voice worth listening to, and I empathised with her throughout. My favourite sections of the book, however, were definitely the sections in which Penelope's maids took to the stage; they spoke so eerily and lyrically that I found it even more enjoyable to read their sections out loud to myself.
The Penelopiad didn't blow me away, but I loved how Atwood interpreted the original story and loved even more that she gave poor Penelope a voice of her own. It was a quick, easy and enjoyable read, and I definitely recommend it - especially to any of you who are taking part in the Retelling Challenge this year!