by Margaret Atwood
This is stunning! Atwood’s retelling of a familiar story, but from the woman’s perspective is compelling. Her clear, eloquent style brings to life the strange, harsh and misogynistic world of Bronze Age Greece. Surely there could be no contemporary comparisons?
Odysseus’s return home to Ithaca, as told by Homer in The Odyssey is of course very famous. The master returns after 20 years spent fighting the Trojans following Helen’s abduction and, the rest of the time, “Wandering around the Aegean Sea, trying to get home, enduring hardships, conquering or evading monsters, and sleeping with goddesses.” (Atwood, THE PENELOPIAD) Return was always going to be difficult for this vengeful lord, roughened by hardship and absence. How was he going to step back in as if nothing had happened, especially as he had left Penelope without allies to face an army of fortune-hunting suitors? A closer reading of Book 22 poses more questions than it answers - why had it taken him so long to return? Would Penelope convince him that she had remained faithful? How would he deal with the Suitors? 20 years is a long time, what was Penelope doing all the time? With a sense of foreboding we read on. It is clear that Odysseus is ready for a bloodbath and heads will roll…
Predictably, it is quite horrible. Spurred on by Athena, he butchers the Suitors, spreading gore all over the palace. Less predictably, and whilst Penelope sleeps, he summons her twelve favourite Maids. Firstly they must carry out the corpses and clean up, then he strings them up from a roof beam to die slowly, like thrushes throttled in a snare. This sadistic and startling moment has always fascinated Atwood and it is central to the novel.
THE PENELOPIAD begins with “Now that I am dead I know everything…”. From Hades, Penelope tells her version of events – her upbringing, marriage, life on Ithaca and the 20 years she spent maintaining the kingdom and waiting for Odysseus to come home. Odysseus may have performed the more famously heroic acts but Penelope, arguably, had the more impossible task of running the estate and keeping order whilst under attack from all sides both inside and outside the court. However, her mother, a Naiad had given her a strange but valuable piece of advice – “Water does not resist. Water flows…if you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it…” So Penelope learns to steer around the treachery set to destroy her. The only brightness in her cheerless and relentless existence is her love of the twelve Maids, who become her (only) friends, spies and co-conspirators in the plot to resist the Suitors. Predictably enough in this misogynistic world, life was not kind to these beautiful but vulnerable girls. How much her husband and son actually knew about the Maids and what was the motivation for their murder is a matter of conjecture. However, the fact remains that all twelve were brutally murdered.
Atwood evokes it all with such ease and skill. Penelope becomes a real voice and the Maids form the Chorus, telling their tale through verse. Atwood’s version conjures a place of extremes, uncompromising and harsh, where only clever and strategic players such as Penelope can survive. The supernatural exerts a malevolent and capricious force over the Mortals and Helen looms as a powerful and destructive force, wreaking havoc wherever she goes.
Atwood ends with an assessment of the wider and anthropological implications of the hanging of the Maids. This is a surprising and fascinating analysis, which cannot help but provoke discussion. This book is highly recommended to anyone who is interested in cultural meanings or simply the injustices done to women. I guarantee that after reading it, the well-known face of The Odyssey will never look quite the same: for me this book was a revelation!
Read our interview with Margaret Atwood.