4.5 stars,  favourites,  literary fiction

Review: ‘The Penelopiad’ by Margaret Atwood

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope – wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy – is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of her maids.” 

In a contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing.


I kind of hate it when I come across a synopsis that so perfectly describes a book because I then try in vain for ages trying to come up with something better.  Or even as good.  Wise, compassionate, haunting, wildly entertaining and disturbing.  The Penelopiad really is all of those things at the same time and it’s a heady mix.

I originally ‘picked up’ (i.e. loaded up on my eReader) The Penelopiad because it combined two of my favourite bookish things of 2013 so far:  Margaret Atwood and twists on Greek mythology.  It turned out to be a riot of literary forms, styles and techniques and has firmly cemented Margaret Atwood onto my list of favourite authors.

Telling the story of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, this glorious novel moves from verse to prose, Ancient Greece to the modern day and from comedy to pathos without ever feeling scattered or disjointed.  In some ways, it’s more like a collection of short works of fiction on a common theme, tied together by a single voice.  There were styles and sections that I preferred to others (as with any collection of short stories and the like) – generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of poetry so, although I actually did find the verse/song sections more enjoyable than I expected, I still preferred the prose.

Penelope’s perspective of Odysseus’ questing and Helen of Troy’s beauty is witty, self-deprecating and really very entertaining.  After years spent in her cousin’s shadow and playing second fiddle to her husband’s love of a good war, she’s wryly bitter:

“If you were a magician, messing around in the dark arts and risking your soul, would you want to conjur up a plain but smart wife who’d been good at weaving and had never transgressed, instead of a woman who’d driven hundreds of men mad with lust and had cause a great city to go up in flames?

Neither would I”

[Page 21 of 119 of my eBook edition]

Still suffering from unfavourable comparisons in the underworld, Penelope is sarcastic, biting and funny.  I really loved her and was dying to drag her off the pages, listen to her rant about her wayward husband and the nastiness of men in general and then give her a big hug. I know that it’s supposed to be the ‘lowest form of wit’ and all but I will always love characters who are liberal with the sarcasm.  The sarkier the better, to be honest.

There’s really not much more to say really.  A feminist view on a classic myth with a hefty dose of snark.  I’ve read some reviews that dismiss the book as too much of a mish-mash of styles or as somehow unfaithful to the myth on which it is based.  I couldn’t disagree more; The Penelopiad is almost a companion to the original, breathing life into those that were left behind while their husbands were off battling for a golden fleece or trying to outsmart a cyclops or two.  Cracking stuff.
Overall:  I know it’s a cliché but here it’s true – there really is something for everyone.  It’s a quick read (the eBook is 119 pages) but has plenty to keep you interested with a plethora of clever turns of phrase and creative spins on a familiar story that make it prime for re-reading.  Highly, highly recommended and part of a set of twists on myths (Canongate myths) that I can’t wait to explore more.
Date finished:  12 February 2013
Format:  eBook
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Literary fiction; Fantasy fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Canongate books in 2006