Friday, January 06, 2006


Ten-pages-in book review: The Penelopiad

Time for another 10-pages-in book review. I'm a little less than a third of the way through Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, but it's a surprisingly quick and easy read and if I don't write this now I'll be done the book soon.

The Penelopiad is one of the first three books in an ambitious series called 'The Myths' from Canongate Books. According to publisher Jamie Byng, "From the outset the idea was to approach topclass writers from all over the world and invite them to retell any myth in any way they chose. And in turn their myths would be published all over the world... By my calculation we will publish the 100th myth in this series on March 15th 2038." I love the idea of retelling myths and finding relevance for the modern reader.

That's exactly what Margaret Atwood has done. Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, hero of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. The Penelopiad is her story, from her unhappy childhood (her father tried to drown her) to her marriage to Odysseus (he won her in a footrace, after drugging the other competitors), her lifelong rivalry with her cousin (the beautiful and infamous Helen of Troy), and her struggle to manage the household for 20 years while Odysseus runs off to fight the Trojan war.

I remember struggling through The Iliad and The Odyssey in school. Matter of fact, I think I gave up and read the Coles Notes of The Odyssey to get me through the exam. While I'll read just about anything, epic poetry has never been something I've enjoyed. I studied ancient mythology from dozens of perspectives in my academic career (I was a liberal arts student, after all), but no telling of these stories was ever so interesting, so compelling and so real to me as this version.

The story is told first person by Penelope from her current home in the afterworld, in a dry tone that is by turns imperiously detached and conversationally witty. You can't help but laugh when she talks about the gods having sex with mortals: "To watch some mortal with his or her eyes frying in their sockets through an overdose of god-sex made [the gods] shake with laughter."

Penelope's unique perspective from Hades gives her insight into our modern world. She tells the reader, "More recently, some of us have been able to infiltrate the new ethereal-wave system that encircles the globe, and to travel around that way, looking out at the world through the flat, illuminated surfaces that serve as domestic shrines." In Hades, she inhabits the past and the present simultaneously, making her voice resonate with the modern reader.

Hers is not the only perspective on the retelling of the Homeric myth, however. Every so often, Penelope's murdered maids take over the telling, interrupting with skipping rhymes, poems and ballads. They are not so much a greek chorus as a chorus line, as cheeky as Penelope herself.

I got this book as a stocking stuffer, and that's just about as perfect an origin for it as I can imagine. It's light reading on a heavy subject, an enjoyable telling of a well-known myth from a fresh perspective. It's clear Margaret Atwood had fun in turning Homer's epics inside out, and I enjoy her work most when she doesn't take herself too seriously.

And oh, how I wish I could turn a phrase like she does. That alone makes this book worth reading, just for the sheer joy of seeing words strung together with such effortless beauty by someone who truly has the gift.