In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is portrayed as unwaveringly faithful and loyal, pining for her husband throughout his 20-year absence and using her wiles to trick the suitors competing to take his place. On Odysseus’ return, after killing monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he slays all the treacherous suitors, and Penelope’s twelve favourite maids who had been forced to serve the suitors in his absence. Curiously, no explanation was ever provided for the brutal murder of the maids, beyond their being bedded by the suitors without their master’s permission – which they would have had no choice about. In this contemporary addition to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood imagines events from Penelope’s point of view, as well as that of the twelve hanged maids.
Atwood has managed to pull off an outstanding retelling, keeping all the familiar details of The Odyssey but twisting them into a new, modern perspective. I really liked the way Penelope tells the story from the underworld is present day. She refers to the way the world has moved on since the time of Odysseus and his contemporaries, and is able to bring a really fresh, modern voice to the story despite being one of the original characters.
The other characters we meet in Penelope’s underworld (Helen, Amphinomus, the maids) bring a level of real comic value to what is otherwise actually quite a dark tale. These details, along with the Greek, tragicomedy-style songs and ‘performances’ by the chorus line of maids, really push The Penelopiad over the line of ‘very good’ to ‘genius’.
I would 100% recommend this book to anyone with even a remote interest in mythology, but I would say that it would help to be at least vaguely familiar with The Odyssey.
I received a complementary copy of this book from the publisher.