My rating: 4 of 5 stars
After reading The Song of Achilles, I has a ken for more. I came to the right place with The Penelopiad by the outstanding Margaret Atwood.
Much like The Song of Achilles, the Penelopiad is a retelling of a classic tale from a new perspective. The Penelopiad, you might say, is the companion book to The Odyssey: the story told by Queen Penelope to match Odysseus’ epic.
In The Odyssey, just in case you’ve forgotten, the hero Odysseus is just trying to get home after 10 hard years in the Trojan War. But he’s pissed off Poseidon, making water travel difficult, and he gets into one scrape after another for 10 whole years. When he finally gets home, his wife and kingdom are beset by “suitors” after his money, so he tricks the suitors then defeats them with his skill with the bow that only he can string. Then, because he’s pissed, he kills all the suitors: all 110 of them or so.
A mere footnote in the story, however, is the death of 12 maids: they are accused of having been raped by the suitors (or having had sex with, depending on your view) and are forced to clean the hall of their spilled blood. Then, Odysseus and his son Telemauchus hang the maids. Odysseus retakes his throne and lives out his life.
The Penelopiad turns everything on its head. All of Odysseus’ grand achievements are thrown into question, and the 12 hanged maids form a Fury chorus to chant and sing out the story. Penelope is given shape beyond her “loyalty,” and is finally rewarded for her cleverness, her patience, her skill in running a kingdom all alone for 20 years and fending off the suitors.
This book was an eye-opener for me. I’d read the Odyssey, of course, but I don’t think I even noticed the maids, much less worried about the absolute unfairness of their plight. While I did think of Penelope a bit more, I didn’t reach beyond the story I was told: I took her loyalty at face-value as it was presented.
Until The Penelopiad threw off the covers. There was so much MORE to find in this story! The 12 maids, mere teenagers at best, were punished for something they had no control over: slaves can’t tell a prince “no.” Of all the people Odysseus killed, only the maids hadn’t really done anything to deserve it. They are literal pawns in this story.
Penelope is barely more, yet Atwood saw how much potential was in Penelope, and her relationship with Helen, the most beautiful–and most bitchy–woman in the ancient world. Penelope is there, plodding along in Helen’s shadow, trying to get by and having to work three times as hard, while Helen prances about and starts wars with the toss of her pretty little head. No wonder Atwood’s Penelope has some bite to her!
I got to meet Margaret Atwood, actually, and had her sign this book for me. Even though this was not the first of her books I discovered, this was the one that most rocked my world. During her presentation, she talked about this book, and how the injustice of the maids really stood out to her. From snippets and bare mentions in the original text, she crafted this whole lush, emoting world for these women: it’s remarkable.
This book is a delight. Classics fans will get more out of it than someone new to the tale, but the story structure is enchanting regardless. It’s a lesson in deft storytelling and a joy to read. I only wish it were longer.