A review of Margaret Atwood’s short, acerbic retelling of the classic
When I saw that Margaret Atwood (one of my favorite authors) had written a book based on the Odyssey, I was surprised I hadn’t read it already. These are two things — Atwood and classical fiction — that I read avidly. But my library had it, I fixed the gap, and now I’m here to tell you that it’s a sharp, short read that’s worth your while if you’re interested in someone using the Odyssey to comment on the Odyssey.
The story, narrated by Penelope, highlights the narrative inconsistencies of the original tale. Some of these inconsistencies are gaps of medium. The Odyssey started out as an oral tradition, which means it contains a multitude of voices, sometimes contradicting each other. Atwood’s tale, also, contains a multitude of contradictory voices. Most notably, these characters include a Greek chorus composed of the Twelve Murdered Maids, whose interjected chapters take the form of everything from epic poems to sea shanties to a mock trial. This is pretty classic Atwood territory. The Maids, of course, are the twelve serving women who are thoughtlessly murdered by Odysseus and Telemachus as part of the former’s victorious homecoming after the Trojan War. In Atwood’s retelling, the Maids harry not just Odysseus but also the listener, demanding an attention they clearly didn’t receive in life. The Maids are not individuals, but rather a collective and clearly feminist symbol, highlighting how frequently and casually rapists become high officials, and women’s killers get away scot-free. Even though this story came out 15 years ago, the maids’ voices echo through the decades. Lord knows, these problems have not gone away. The use of mock trial is particularly genius, in our current context.
If you’re used to Margaret Atwood and the Odyssey, this book won’t surprise you. The Odyssey’s inconsistencies and brutalities are obvious at first glance, and Atwood’s characterization is (for her) a little predictable. Penelope, who narrates the bulk of the novel, is no sweet wallflower, commenting acidly on Odysseus’s wiliness and her own naivete when they married, as well as her neglectful Naiad mother. Her sharpest critique, however, falls on her beautiful cousin Helen, the cause of the Trojan War, whom Penelope describes, at one point, as “poison on legs.” The relationship between Penelope and Helen features the standard teenage Mean Girl (TM) dynamics, with Helen playing the pretty popular girl to Penelope’s plain wife. And yet, neither of these women is a reliable narrator. There are holes in Penelope’s story, too. What exactly was she doing with all of the suitors, all those long years when her husband was — let’s recall — cavorting with every nymph and goddess who looked his way. Yes, the suitors were after her land and title, but to bookish Penelope — married off at 15 as an afterthought, always the less-desired cousin to Helen — the Suitors’ insincere praise is still a bit heady. The Greek chorus points this out, but so does Penelope herself. And how in all the Greek hells did she sleep through her husband’s mass murder of her Maids, as she alleges? At the end, when Odysseus finally returns and recounts to her the details of his long voyage home, she says, “The two of us were — by our own admission — proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did. Or so we told each other.”
So it’s up to us whether we want to believe this Penelope, jaded, biting, gossipy and a bit blood-thirsty. It is what she is, but also what the story’s made her: what woman wouldn’t be? Atwood’s cleverness doesn’t lie in persuading us that Penelope was a hero, but rather in convincing us that she was normal.