The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Canongate: paperback published 2006: 196 pages
Murder comes back to haunt you
For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, running a kingdom while her husband is off fighting the Trojan war is not a simple business. As if it isn’t bad enough that he has been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must also bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep more than one hundred lustful, greedy, bloodthirsty suitors at bay… Perhaps not surprising then that it all ends in murder.
Margaret Atwood has given Penelope her own voice so that she can tell her story at last and set the record straight for good.
The Penelopiad is part of The Myths series – a series of books retelling some of the most famous and best-loved myths, all written by amazing authors (Margaret Atwood is joined by the likes of A.S. Byatt, Chinua Achebe, Alexander McCall Smith and Thomás Eloy Martínez). It tells the story of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca and its consequences, all from the point of view of his wife, Penelope.
The Independent describes this book as “Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives” and I can sort of see their point. This is a book of brilliance – it has the sharp and coolly-delivered wit of a good Margaret Atwood tale, with the added deliciousness of a well-known story being retold.
Okay, so admittedly I don’t really know the myth very well. I know a bit about Odysseus and his adventures, but I get as far as that and never really pay attention to what happened upon his return home. So there is a familiar distance to this book – I know it and yet it’s new.
Penelope is telling her side of the story, but from the underworld. It’s the modern day for all intents and purposes (she discusses at length the new hell “down the road” and the magicians and conjurors who summon her), which gives it a darkly comic twist. Chapters are interspersed by a Chorus – performed by the 12 maids from the myth whose miserable end was the inspiration for the book – and chapters are satisfyingly short, humorous and deeply insightful. Atwood’s skill in conveying something complex and emotional with the simple flick of a sentence is perfectly demonstrated in this brief story of 196 pages.
Dead Penelope is much nicer than Alive Penelope, I feel. You love her all the more that she can look back at herself and mock, and even better still her ability to cut through other characters with a steely, quick tongue. The surrounding characters – from Helen of Troy to Odysseus to her entourage of suitors – are comic extras. The maids, however, are a stark contrast. They’re terrifying in the way they cast this shadow over Penelope and her cast of clowns and idiots. That’s what makes this so effective as a novel. These maids loom heavy on each fold of the tale, each chapter hangs heavier with doom-laden understanding. These maids – bitter in their songs, yet high-spirited in life – cling to Penelope’s conscience and you feel it in the change of tone as she switches from piece to piece of the story. The tension is quickly built and dealt with a heavy blow.
As with any book I enjoy this much, I won’t say any more – as you know much of the story already, and to say anything further about The Penelopiad would be to ruin it.
Next book: I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I’ve read some stunning books of late. Which means my next book has a lot to live up to… Joseph Heller is better known for Catch-22, and the blurb on the back of Something Happened tells me absolutely nothing, but I loved Catch-22 and have high hopes for Heller’s second novel.