I wanted to join in with this year’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month (hosted by Buried in Print) but knew I wouldn’t have time for one of her longer novels; The Penelopiad, at 199 pages, seemed the perfect choice as it would also count for the Novellas in November event (hosted by 746 Books and Bookish Beck). The Penelopiad was published in 2005 as part of the Canongate Myths series, of which I’ve previously read Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić and Ragnarok by AS Byatt. It’s a retelling of the events of the Odyssey from the perspectives of Penelope and the twelve maids who were hanged by her son, Telemachus.
Penelope narrates her story from a modern day underworld where she wanders through the fields of asphodel occasionally encountering the spirits of other characters from Greek mythology. With little to do in the afterlife other than to think and remember, Penelope recalls her childhood in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus and, particularly, the events that followed her husband’s departure to fight in the Trojan War. Left behind in Ithaca to raise baby Telemachus, Penelope awaits news of Odysseus but as the years go by it looks less and less likely that he is going to return.
Many of you will already know how the story progresses from there – the suitors, the shroud, the fate of the twelve maids, the bed carved from an olive tree – so I won’t go into the plot in any more detail. However, Atwood doesn’t just use Homer’s Odyssey as a source; she also draws upon other works including Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths to help fill in the gaps and provide a different view of Penelope’s character and story. Penelope is usually associated with faithfulness and patience and seen as perhaps a less interesting woman than Helen of Troy or Clytemnestra; in The Penelopiad, Penelope tells us how frustrated she is with the way she has been portrayed and how she really feels about rivals such as Helen.
Penelope’s own narrative is interrupted now and then by her twelve maids, who speak with one voice in a Greek chorus. As well as giving their own version of the events that build up to Odysseus ordering Telemachus to kill them, they also comment on Penelope’s account, leading us to question her motives and to wonder what exactly was and was not true. The sections narrated by the maids are written in a different style every time – a poem, a ballad, a lecture and even a court trial – but although I understood the need for a second perspective other than Penelope’s, these were my least favourite parts of the book. I found the modern language used by Penelope and the maids a bit jarring too and I think overall, I would have just preferred a more straightforward and conventional retelling of Penelope’s story.
I didn’t find this as satisfying as the other Margaret Atwood books I’ve read, but it was a quick, witty and entertaining read and it’s always good to see women from Greek myth given voices of their own.