In which the wife of Odysseus and a Greek chorus of maids give a woman’s perspective to an ancient tale
Title: The Penelopiad
Author: Margaret Atwood
What it’s about: Combine one part retelling of an ancient, classic tale with one part Margaret Atwood, and you’re sure to come up with something I’ll love. The Penelopiad is The Odyssey, retold from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s patient wife who fends off an island full of suitors for twenty years, waiting for her husband’s return. Atwood re-appropriates the male-centric story and tells a much more nuanced and dark version, in which a chorus of wronged maids plays counterpoint to the misunderstood Penelope. Her tale comes to us from the afterlife (a decidedly pagan version unconnected with the conventional Christian heaven). Penelope tries to make sense of her life, her years spent waiting for a wandering husband who many said spent his time in the arms of goddesses (or were they merely mistresses?). She can’t forget about her twelve maids who were killed by Odysseus upon his return. Their crime: being raped by the usurping suitors.
Atwood’s tale is haunting and beautiful, told in alternating chapters by Penelope and the chorus of the twelve maids. The maids write poems, sing songs, and plead their case before a judge, while Penelope just lays out the story as she saw it. Much of Atwood’s work explores female sexuality, and most specifically how some men seek to control it. The Handmaid’s Tale is the most well-known example, but you can see the theme repeated in The Blind Assassin or even one of her earliest, The Edible Woman. She also explores the complex emotions between women that often lead them to become rivals rather than friends. One has to look only at Penelope’s resentment towards her famous cousin Helen or her excuses for abandoning her maids in their time of need to draw out questions about how women relate to one another and how we could do more to foster sisterhood.
This book is short and clever, and despite its deeper themes, quite easy to read. I finished it in a couple of hours and felt excited by the questions Atwood raised and also inspired by the beautiful poetry and prose.
Would I recommend? Yes. If you’ve read The Odyssey, this book will open your eyes to parts of the story you may not have absorbed in your English Lit classes. Lovers of Greek mythology and those who want to think about deeper women’s issues will also devour this novella.