Book review – The Penelopiad

I remember the first mythology I remember learning about at school was Greek mythology. It opened my eyes to whole new realms and I never looked back. Every different mythology led me to a new culture, a new religion, a new belief system.

When I saw The Penelopaid, the retelling of one of the best known myths from the view point of Penelope, I was intrigued, and being a Margaret Atwood fan meant I didn’t hesitate to pick it up.

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For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay…

And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope’s twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to?

Firstly Penelope is elevated from side character to narrator telling her life story from the other side. We learn of her childhood and the family interactions, including her famous cousin Helen, whose “kidnapping” was responsible for Odysseus’ lengthy absence.

Penelope struggles with her life, being taken against tradition to her husbands home, ignored by her in laws, and finally left to raise her son, rule, and fend off suitors. As tales of Odysseus reach her she considers what the truth of them could be. At the same time manipulating her maids and the truth to keep ahead of the horde of men after her home and wealth.

Even in the afterlife Penelope is unhappy. Odysseus still can not remain with her. She see Helen, still chased by admirers, and is bitter and gossipy towards her, even telling her that it wasn’t her famed beauty that caused the war. The maids, manipulated, raped, murdered, haunt Penelope as she tries to chase them down and make amends.

The Penolopiad made me question so much of the original myth, Penelope’s faithfulness, the morality of trickery on both her part and Odysseus’s and those it hurt, and the dismissal of the “lesser lives” when these tales are told as inconsequential.

As a huge fan of mythology I enjoyed having the story finally told from the female view point and the plight of those left behind while the adventures are had. The hindsight aspect of analysing the actions and rumours of her famed husband Odysseus’ exploits, her own and those of the people around her kept it fresh. A well rounded, modern flip on a well known myth.

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