Nov 13, 2007

Weight by Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of those authors I have been meaning to read for a long time. This post by Dark Orpheus reminded me of this fact just the other day. Another thing I mean to do is read every book in the Canongate Myth Series, so when I spotted Weight at the library I had to bring it home with me.

In Weight, Winterson retells the myth of Heracles and Atlas: How Heracles held the weight of the world while Atlas picked the golden apples of the Hesperides for him, and when the titan returned with the apples, he told Heracles he would not go back to his punishment. Heracles asked him to bear the world for just a little while, so he could readjust his position, and then took off as soon as the weight of the firmament was once again on the Atlas’ shoulders.

One of the things I enjoy the most about modern retellings of myths is how they often add emotional content, thoughts and motivations to a well-known plot. This book is no exception. In the introduction, Jeanette Winterson writes:
Weight moves away from the simple story of Atlas’ punishment and his temporary relief when Hercules takes the world off his shoulders. I wanted to explore loneliness, isolation, responsibility, burden, and freedom too, because my version has a very particular end not found elsewhere.
This is indeed what the story does. It explores choice and fate, loneliness and burdens – particularly whether the burdens we carry are but the ones we make ourselves carry. I liked how Atlas and Heracles are portrayed as opposites: Atlas is quiet and reflective. His punishment made him a prisoner, but he escapes into his own thoughts. Heracles is technically free, but his whole life he has been a slave to the will of the Gods. He avoids thought at all costs, and tells himself that he has no choice but to follow the path that was chosen for him by Hera, by Zeus, by fate – by anyone but himself. But is that truly the case?

Another thing I found very interesting was how the book incorporated the story of Laika, the dog that was launched into space in 1957. This is a bit embarrassing, but until very recently I didn’t know she had been left in outer space to die. Just a little over a week ago, my boyfriend and I were talking about The Arcade Fire, a band that has a song called Laika, and I asked him, “How did they bring her back?” He stared at me in silence for a few seconds and then said, “They didn’t.” I don’t know how I managed to remain oblivious to this particular piece of information for my whole life. Then, also very recently, I read this blog interview with author Nick Abadizs, who wrote a graphic novel about Laika that I really, really want to read.

But getting back to the point, the idea of a dog left to die in outer space can be quite upsetting, and in this book Jeanette Winterson uses her story very movingly. She becomes Atlas’ dog, and more than this I cannot say. I’ll just urge you all to read Weight and find out.

Those of you who, like me, are interested in the Canongate Myth Series, will be interested in knowing that 3 new titles were published just at the start of the month. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith, retells the myth of Iphis, one of Ovid's metamorphosis; Where Tree Roads Meet by Sally Vickers, is about the myth of Oedipus; and Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong, is based on the Chinese myth of Meng Jiangnu and the Great Wall. I cannot wait to get my hands on them.

Other Blog Reviews:
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Adventures in Reading
Reading Adventures


  1. I am so annoyed. I just checked my library for this book and they only have it in audio format...and those always put me to sleep! LOL

  2. "weight" has been on my bookshelves when it first came out. Yet I have never found the time to get around to it. Will have to rectify this - thanks for the timely reminder. For a while I wanted to go re-read "Oranges are not the Only Fruit." :)

    I'm also looking forward to Ali Smith's take on Ovid.

    It's really a very intersting idea - of how we re-tell stories and somehow, we always add a bit of ourselves in it.

  3. Rebecca: That's too bad. I've been told by many people that a well-done audiobook can be quite an experience, but personally I also prefer actually reading the books.

    Dark Orpheus: Do get to it soon! It's a very fast read. "Oranges are not the Only Fruit" is on my wishlist. Hopefully I'll get to it at some point next year. Jeanette Winterson writes more about that, how we put a bit of ourselves in the stories we retell, in this book's introduction. I do think it's a very interesting idea.

  4. wow, this sounds very interesting. in fact, more interesting than the one i read.

    i, like you, like retellings of myths too, and i think you're spot on when you say what makes them so appealing!

  5. Jean Pierre, which one was the one you read?

  6. Sounds like a wonderful series, I will definitely be tracking them down! Thanks for the recommendation :)

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  8. Rhinoa, you're welcome. I really think you will enjoy this series!


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