The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood has been lurking in my sidebar for months, in fact it’s still there, but it will be moving on shortly. It was actually quite quick to read; it clocks in at under 200 pages, which for a book which draws on The Odyssey as its source material is pretty short.

Penelope gets the Margaret Atwood treatment and the opportunity to tell her story from her own point of view. In fact, this version of Penelope is a surprisingly modern woman, who speaks in a contemporary voice, which is not as surprising as it initially appears; as the story unfolds it becomes clear that Penelope’s shade is speaking to a modern day listener. Exactly how this is possible isn’t made clear until near the end of the book, but it gives the perfect excuse for Penelope to explain things – such as the way slaves were expected to behave – that would have needed no explanation in her own time.

This version of Penelope differs considerably from the familiar character of the traditional myth, renowned for her virtue and her cunning as she weaves by day and unravels her work by night. Margaret Atwood’s version of Penelope is at times frustrated by her inability to control her own household, never mind her own destiny. Penelope’s descriptions of her encounters with Helen of Troy are wickedly funny: fair Helen is depicted as a rather vain and vapid character and the cause of much misery, including Penelope’s own.

Penelope’s narrative is punctuated by a chorus from a different set of voices: those of the 12 maids, whose unpleasant fate seems to have inspired Margaret Atwood to tell this story. These sections are written in verse, but this didn’t really work for me. I like to get lost in a book, to forget I am reading and feel I am looking down on the events. Every time a chorus began, I lost that feeling. There is also a modern day trial towards the end of the book, which had a similar effect.

Overall, I thought this was worth reading and I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future, I enjoyed the new perspective, particularly Margaret Atwood’s take on the behaviour of the 12 maids. I loved the humour, particularly the way Penelope described so many of her relatives and in-laws in such a thoroughly unflattering manner. However, I personally found the style in which the book was written a little disjointed at times, so I think I’m going for 4 stars out of 5.

1 comment to The Penelopiad

  • Hi. Thanks for visiting my blog and for the good wishes 🙂

    This isn’t a book I have come across and like you I like to get lost in a story so I probably won’t be adding it to my list. Great to have your perspective of it though.

    Love your kitty pic.