May 9, 2007

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad is the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, spanning from her childhood to the time her husband returns from the Trojan War. The story is told in the first person by Penelope herself – she is now dead, but she speaks to us from Hades. The book opens with this beautiful passage:

"Now that I’m dead I know everything”. This is what I wished would happen, but like so many of my wishes it failed to come true. I know only a few factoids that I didn’t know before. Death is much too high a price to pay for the satisfaction of curiosity, needless to say.

Since being dead – since achieving this state of bonelessness, liplessness, beastlessness – I’ve learned some things I would rather not know, as one does when listening at windows or opening other people’s letters. You think you’d like to read minds? Think again.
The whole book is beautifully written, and I only complain that it was too short, especially because there was room for more – the pace could have been slower, more details could have been explored.

I love retellings of mythology because they add emotions, insights and motives to what is often bare plot. They cast new light on old stories, and this book does exactly that.

The hanging of Penelope’s twelve maids is indeed a disturbing detail in The Odyssey, and the way in which this book explores it is very interesting. I have read many retellings of The Odyssey, but not the thing itself. I had originally planned to read it for the Once Upon a Time Challenge, but I had more or less given up the idea. Reading this book, however, made me reconsider. It refueled my interest, so I think now would be the perfect time to finally pick it up.

In this book the story is, as I said, told from Penelope’s point of view, and she portrays her cousin Helen as selfish, manipulative and vain. The picture she paints is believable and it makes sense, but it made me think that it would be interesting to read a book in which the story of Troy is told from Helen’s point of view. I’m sure such a book exists, and probably there’s more than one. Does anyone have any recommendations?

The only part of The Penelopiad I didn’t like as much was the chapter entitled “An Anthropology Lecture”. Not for what it said, which was interesting – the chapter presents the idea that the hanging of the twelve maids symbolizes the replacing of a matriarchal moon-cult with patriarchal cults, represented by Odysseus – but because the way in which it said it, which struck me as a little condescending. But these were only a couple of pages in an otherwise delightful book.

This was only my second experience with Margaret Atwood (the first was Bluebeard’s Egg). I must confess that before I was a little suspicious of her because of the condescending way in which she reacted to Neil Gaiman’s opinion of her “book signing machine” (a very silly idea indeed, in my humble opinion). I enjoyed her writing a lot, though, and this is yet one more thing that shows me that keeping the person of the author and their work separate is often a very wise idea.

This was my first book of the Canongate Myths series, and I can’t wait to read the others. I think this series is a brilliant idea. Recently I discovered that Philip Pullman, A. S. Byatt and Ali Smith will be writing books for it, and I was incredibly excited. I can’t wait to find out which myths they will be retelling (and to read them, of course).

Other Blog Reviews:
Booknotes by Lisa
Lost in a Good Story
Lotus Reads
Life and Times of a New New Yorker
Adventures in Reading
The Written World
Educating Petunia


  1. I've been wanting to read this. I'm a big fan of Margaret Atwood, and I think it's a cool series. Sounds pretty good!

  2. Somehow I have managed not to read anything by Atwood, as yet. Not intentionally, that's just the way it seems to have worked out.

    I think it may well be time though, and as I want to read more myth-related "stuff", The Penelopiad is getting bumped right up there at the top of The List.

  3. Have you read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold? The way you describe the book reminds me a lot of that story (which I really liked) about a young girl telling the story from beyond the grave.

  4. I have yet to read anything by Atwood, but I have to say I am amazed at her flexibility as a writer. I am looking forward to reading her books in the future. Thank you for the review.

  5. Kim: No, I haven't, but I've heard about it before. I'll pick it up one of these days.

    I definitely want to read more of Atwood's work. She really does seem quite flexible, and also very talented.

  6. I've read a few Atwood books and enjoyed each one so far, I'm going through an Odyssey/Iliad phase at the moment so this looks like another good one to add to my list :)
    I'd really recommend reading the Odyssey, it can be tricky to work through but is definitely worth the effort. And lets face it, Odysseus is everyone's favourite Trojan character, so the more to read along that tract the better.

  7. I've read a few by Atwood, some I've loved, like Alias Grace, others I've been interested in but not loved, like Oryx and Crake. I have been meaning to read this though, so this positive review has just bumped it up a little ;)

  8. Ok, I guess I had you mixed up with someone else. I read a review a couple months ago by someone who really didn't like this book, and I thought it was you, but nope!


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