The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

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.

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

After reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls a few years ago, I wasn’t really expecting a sequel, but here it is: The Women of Troy. I’m sure if you wanted to you could read this one as a standalone, but I would recommend reading both as this is a direct continuation of the first. Together, the two novels tell the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath.

The Silence of the Girls was based on the events of Homer’s Iliad; this second novel is set after the fall of Troy, when the victorious Greek invaders are stranded on the shore, waiting for the winds to change so that their ships can sail home. Trapped there with them are the Trojan women they have taken captive, some of whom were once queens and princesses but are now treated as slaves. Among them is Briseis, who had been taken by the great Greek warrior Achilles as a war prize and then married off to his friend Alcimus after Achilles’ death.

As in the previous novel, Briseis is our main narrator, but there are also some chapters written from other perspectives: Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, desperate to prove himself as great as his father, and Calchas, a priest and prophet. One of my criticisms of The Silence of the Girls was that, despite the title, we only actually heard the voice of one girl, Briseis, while large sections of the book were written from the point of view of Achilles – and the title of The Women of Troy also seems slightly misleading, as we have two male perspectives and only one female. However, this time I felt that, at least through Briseis’ eyes, we do see more of the other women in the camp than we did in the first book. These include Hecuba, the former Queen of Troy and wife of the murdered King Priam; their daughter Cassandra, who has the gift – or curse – of prophecy; and Andromache, the widow of Hector who was killed by Achilles during the war. All of these women have interesting stories of their own, as well as now all sharing the same problem: how to cope with living amongst the men who destroyed their city.

Then – and now – people seem to take it for granted that I loved Achilles. Why wouldn’t I? I had the fastest, strongest, bravest, most beautiful man of his generation in my bed – how could I not love him?

He killed my brothers.

We women are peculiar creatures. We tend not to love those who murder our families.

As this entire novel is set during that period of waiting for the weather to change, it’s a slower paced and more character-driven story than the previous one. The plot, so much as there is one, revolves around the attempts of the Trojans to bury the body of their beloved King Priam, brutally killed by Pyrrhus and denied proper burial. Despite this, I still found the story quite gripping and enjoyed getting to know some of the women better. I’m wondering whether there will be a third book, as this one felt very like the middle book in a trilogy to me.

Thanks to Penguin UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 40/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

There have been several novels published recently retelling Greek myths from a feminine perspective; this is another – and one that I really enjoyed. As the title suggests, it’s the story of Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphaë of Crete, but it’s also the story of another woman, her younger sister Phaedra.

As two princesses of Crete, Ariadne and Phaedra grow up in the comfort of the palace at Knossos, but their brother Asterion is not so lucky. Born half man and half bull, he has become known as the Minotaur and banished to the underground labyrinth designed by Daedalus. Each year fourteen young men and women arrive from Athens to be sacrificed to the Minotaur – until the year when Theseus, Prince of Athens, is one of the fourteen and Ariadne falls in love. Swept away by the prince’s good looks and courage, Ariadne decides to help him kill the Minotaur and escape from the labyrinth, but this means betraying her family and the people of Crete.

If you have any knowledge of Greek mythology, you probably already know all of this, but I think Ariadne’s adventures after she is forced to flee Crete with Theseus are less well known, so I won’t go into too much detail here. The Minotaur story only occupies the first few chapters of the novel, with much more time spent describing what happens after that, and it was fascinating to read about Ariadne’s relationship with the god Dionysus on the island of Naxos, as well as the fate of Phaedra, left behind to deal with the aftermath of her sister’s betrayal.

Jennifer Saint has a lot to say in this novel about heroes and hero worship, particularly in her depiction of Theseus (very much the villain of the book and certainly not the Theseus we meet in Mary Renault’s The King Must Die) and of the cult of Dionysus and his female followers, the maenads. She touches on why people feel the need to put their faith in heroes and what happens when their eyes are opened to the truth, as well as exploring the differences between mortals and gods, the position of women in Ancient Greek society and how, in Greek mythology, the gods usually make the women pay the price for the acts of men.

When I first began to read, I hadn’t expected part of the novel to be written from Phaedra’s perspective, but I think using her as a viewpoint character as well as Ariadne adds more scope to the story and makes it even more interesting than it would otherwise have been. However, I thought Phaedra’s storyline suffered near the end from the weak characterisation of Hippolytus, who plays such an important role in her later life. The conclusion of Ariadne’s story is slightly disappointing too; it felt rushed and didn’t have quite the impact it should have had. Still, I enjoyed this book, particularly the first half, and I think it compares well to Circe by Madeline Miller.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

“Just as I promised him: this was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them. A war does not ignore half the people whose lives it touches. So why do we?”

This is the book I had expected Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls to be. A retelling of the events surrounding the Trojan War written from the perspective of not just one or two but many of the women who had a role to play in the war and its aftermath – and going beyond the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Oresteia to tell the stories the men didn’t tell.

From Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, to Cassandra the prophet; from Thetis, the sea nymph and mother of Achilles, to Gaia, the personification of Mother Earth; from Iphigenia, cruelly sacrificed on what should have been her wedding day, to Creusa, who wakes in the night to find the city of Troy in flames – just think of a woman from Greek mythology and she is probably here, in this book!

The stories of some of the women are told quite briefly, while others are given more time and attention; some appear only once but others recur again and again throughout the novel. Interspersed between these stories are a series of letters from Penelope to her absent husband, Odysseus, the tone growing increasingly hurt and frustrated as tales of his heroic escapades begin to reach her while the man himself appears to be in no hurry to return home to his wife. And holding all the other threads of the novel together are short sections of commentary by Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, who is providing guidance to a blind poet who wants to tell the story of Troy:

Men’s deaths are epic, women’s deaths are tragic: is that it? He has misunderstood the very nature of conflict. Epic is countless tragedies, woven together. Heroes don’t become heroes without carnage, and carnage has both causes and consequences. And those don’t begin and end on a battlefield.

This is an ambitious novel but, for me, it mostly works. I say mostly because there were times when I found the structure confusing – the stories are not presented in chronological order and jump around in time so that a chapter set after the fall of Troy is followed by a chapter set at the beginning of the war – but I’m happy to admit that I am in no way an expert on Greek mythology and readers with more knowledge probably wouldn’t have a problem. I’m not really sure of the reason for the non-linear structure, though – obviously the stories must have been carefully arranged in a certain order but to me they felt very random. Also, because there are so many different narrators, many of whom made their voices heard only for a few pages before disappearing from the novel completely, it was difficult to form any kind of emotional connection with them. Still, there are some I found more memorable than others: Cassandra, doomed to constantly ‘watch the shock on people’s faces, when precisely what she had predicted – and they had ignored – came true’; Hera, Athene and Aphrodite fighting over the golden apple inscribed with the words ‘For the most beautiful’; and the sad story of Laodamia, devoted to a bronze statue of her lost husband.

Although A Thousand Ships felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel, I enjoyed reading it and am now wondering whether I should try Natalie Haynes’ previous Greek retelling, The Children of Jocasta.

Thanks to Mantle for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

Published in 1962, this is the second of Mary Renault’s two novels telling the story of Theseus. It’s been a few years since I read the first book, The King Must Die, and I was worried that I’d waited too long to read this one, but actually, although it does pick up where the first book left off, it wasn’t necessary to remember every little detail because The Bull from the Sea also works as a complete novel in its own right.

It begins with Theseus and his fellow bull-dancers returning to Athens from Crete, having defeated the Minotaur. Mistakenly believing Theseus to be dead, his father Aegeus has committed suicide, leaving Theseus to become the new king of Athens in his place. After his eventful time in Crete, Theseus finds it difficult to settle back into daily life, even with his new duties as king to occupy him. His restlessness soon leads him into a series of adventures with his friend Pirithoos, the pirate king of the Lapiths, and one of these journeys ends in a meeting with Hippolyta, the Amazon queen.

Theseus falls in love with Hippolyta and after challenging her to single combat and winning, he takes her back with him to Athens. A close and loving relationship develops between them, but Hippolyta can never become his wife – his people would not accept her as their queen, but in any case he is already promised in marriage to Phaedra, a princess of Crete. The fates of Hippolyta, Phaedra and the sons they bear Theseus are played out over the remainder of the novel.

Unlike The King Must Die which focused on only a few years in Theseus’ life, The Bull from the Sea covers a much longer period and as it’s not a particularly thick book, this means that several of the episodes in Theseus’ story are not explored in as much detail. His role in taming the bull of Marathon, for example, is dealt with relatively quickly without going into a lot of depth. Much more time is spent on his relationships with Hippolyta and Phaedra and their sons Hippolytos and Akamas, which was good because this was the part of the novel I found the most interesting. Having recently read For the Immortal by Emily Hauser which tells Hippolyta’s story from a feminine perspective, Mary Renault’s portrayal of her relationship with Theseus couldn’t be more different!

It’s the fact that different authors can take such different approaches to the same myths and legends that makes Ancient Greece so fascinating to read about. There is never just one version that everyone agrees on; so much is left open to interpretation. Mary Renault gives logical, realistic explanations for the various aspects of the myths rather than fantastical ones. I was intrigued by her representation of the Kentaurs (centaurs), for example, not as the half human/half horse creatures we would normally think of, but as a sort of ancient and primitive community of people who live in the wild and form close bonds with their horses.

It seems that most people prefer The King Must Die to this book, but I think I actually enjoyed this one more. This is probably because when I read the first novel in 2013 I had previously read very little about Ancient Greece and didn’t find the subject particularly appealing. Since then I’ve been dipping into the period more and more often and becoming more familiar with some of the myths, which could be why I found this book easier to get into and follow. I will be reading more by Mary Renault and am looking forward to starting her Alexander trilogy soon. I already have the first two books, Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy, ready and waiting on my shelf.

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

There have been a number of novels published recently which look at Greek myths and legends from a feminine perspective. In the last few months I have enjoyed reading Circe by Madeline Miller, which tells the story of the witch Circe from the Odyssey, and For the Immortal by Emily Hauser, the story of Hippolyta the Amazon queen. Pat Barker’s new novel, The Silence of the Girls is another, this time bringing to life the character of Briseis and the events of Homer’s Iliad.

When the city of Lyrnessus falls to the Greeks during the Trojan War, Briseis loses her husband, King Mynes, and her father and brothers. The surviving women are shared out amongst the Greek conquerors as prizes of war and Briseis finds that she is given to the great warrior Achilles as a slave. The events which follow, such as the quarrel which breaks out between Achilles and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, over the possession of Briseis, and the fate of Patroclus when he impersonates Achilles on the battlefield, will already be known to anyone familiar with the Iliad. If all of this is new to you, though, don’t worry – no knowledge of Homer’s epic is necessary and Pat Barker makes it very easy to follow what is happening.

Most of the novel is narrated by Briseis herself and I found her a very engaging narrator. The nature of her story and the ordeals she faces make her an easy character to sympathise with; I was given a good understanding of how she felt about losing her freedom, becoming a slave and being at the mercy of the men responsible for murdering her family and destroying her city. This is quite a dark novel and Barker doesn’t hold back when describing the brutality of the men in the Greek army, both on and off the battlefield.

I was surprised to find that there are also some chapters written from the perspective of Achilles, who is very much the villain of the book. Although seeing Achilles’ side of the story certainly didn’t make me warm to him at all, it was good to get a different point of view, especially as it allowed us to see scenes and hear conversations that took place when Briseis was not present. However, because of the title of the book, I think it would have been nice if more female characters had been given a voice so that the silence of more than just one girl could be broken. We do meet some of the other women in the Greek camp, but only through Briseis’ eyes and Briseis is the only one we get to know in any depth.

I did really enjoy this book, though. It’s well written, very readable, and a fascinating portrayal of Ancient Greek society. If you’re interested in reading more about Briseis, you could try Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston and For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser. She also appears in Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, which will give you a very different view of Achilles as well!

This is book 12/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

For the Winner by Emily Hauser

I mentioned recently that I wanted to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece and, having already read Emily Hauser’s first novel, For the Most Beautiful, I was sure that her second, For the Winner, would be a good choice! Hauser’s two books retell stories from Greek mythology from a female perspective – in For the Most Beautiful we see the events of the Trojan War unfold through the eyes of Krisayis and Briseis; For the Winner reimagines the story of Jason and the Argonauts with a focus on Atalanta, another lesser-known woman of the time. The books are part of a planned trilogy – the Golden Apple trilogy – but can be read in any order.

Abandoned on a mountain as a baby, Atalanta is rescued by a peasant and his wife who raise her as their own child. Growing up unaware of her true parentage, there are hints that Atalanta is destined for something special: by the time she is a teenager she has taught herself to hunt, to run with extraordinary speed and to use a bow and arrow with breathtaking skill. And then, one day, she learns the truth: the father who had left her to die on Mount Pelion was King Iasus of Pagasae.

To prove herself to her father, Atalanta decides to join the group of Greek heroes who are preparing for a voyage to the faraway land of Colchis in search of the legendary Golden Fleece. The quest will be led by the King’s nephew, Jason, whose reward for returning with the Fleece will be the kingdom of Pagasae itself – the kingdom Atalanta believes is rightfully hers. Can she win a place on board the Argo and find the Golden Fleece before Jason does?

I loved For the Winner. For the Most Beautiful was an enjoyable read too, but I thought this one was better – there were none of the little problems I remember experiencing with the other book. The biggest improvement was with the scenes depicting the Greek gods and goddesses looking down on the world from Mount Olympus, interfering and intervening in human affairs and arguing amongst themselves. With Zeus taking Atalanta’s side and Hera doing whatever she can to help Jason, I was particularly interested in the role of Iris, whose feelings and motives are less clear. The gods really added something special to the story this time and I looked forward to their appearances rather than finding them irritating as I did in the previous novel.

Although, as I’ve admitted before, my knowledge of Greek myth is quite limited, I was already familiar with the story of Jason and the Argonauts (and also have vague memories of watching the 1963 film version, years ago). However, the story told in this novel is very different, bringing in other characters and elements and mixing them together to create something new and original. Choosing to write from Atalanta’s perspective was a great decision because she is such a wonderful character. I loved following her adventures, but I don’t want to say too much more about her or give away too many details of her story! There were other characters I came to care about too, particularly Atalanta’s friend Myrtessa – and one of the men from the Argo who becomes the novel’s love interest. Jason, on the other hand, is portrayed as cruel, arrogant and completely unlikeable, but his rivalry with our heroine is what drives the plot forward.

I think what I appreciated most about For the Winner, though, was the way it explores the question of choice and free will – and how each of us has the power to defy fate and control our own destiny. Now I’m looking forward to the third book in the trilogy and am curious to see which Greek myth Emily Hauser tackles next.

Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review.

This is Book 5/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m actually doing better with this challenge than it appears – I have another two books waiting to be reviewed and am in the middle of reading two more!)