Odysseus’ Better Half: The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and OdysseusThe Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

A clever, witty retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey (see my review of Robert Fagles’ translation), Atwood’s slim novel does an interesting job inverting the ancient myth while remaining a breezy, entertaining read.

A few years back, Atwood was part of a group of writers featured in a collection called The Myths. From the copy on the inside pages, she’s featured among writers like Chinua Achebe, A.S. Byatt and Alexander McCall Smith. While the website listed is long gone, some detective work shows writers tackled everything from Scandinavian mythology (Byatt’s Ragnarok) to Christ (Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) to the Old Testament (David Grossman’s Lion’s Honey).

While I can’t speak to the other volumes in this series – indeed, I have yet to even stumble across one in the wild – I’d bet Atwood’s volume is among it’s best.

In The Penelopiad, Atwood deftly takes apart Homer’s The Odyssey and refashions it as a story told from Penelope’s lonely point of view. Wed at a young age to a trickster, then abandoned for 20 years, her story has all the trappings of melodrama. Indeed, as I remember The Odyssey, she comes off as clever and wily but is never as fleshed out as her husband or son is. But the Ancient Greeks weren’t overly concerned with details, I assume; Homer certainly had a rough go at describing a house.

In Atwood’s telling, Penelope is smart, tricky and witty. She’s dealt a poor hand, but makes what she can of it. Her father doesn’t care for and tries to toss her into the ocean, while her Naiad mother is more interested in “playing tricks on clams.” When she’s wed to Odysseus, she makes what she can of it, spending her time tending to her palace. Eventually, Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War and things get to where we recognize them.

It’s also where Atwood’s angle really takes flight. As the years pass and Odysseus remains at large, Atwood presents different angles in the form of bawdy rumors: was Odysseus really tempted by the bird-like Sirens? Or did he just crash at a whorehouse where the women wear feathers?

Mixed in with Penelope’s retelling is a chorus of maids, the twelve Telemakhos “hung like doves” at the end of book 22. Writing in verse, Atwood has these maids counter Penelope’s story. They turn Odysseus’ travels into a sea shanty, echo Penelope’s privileged upbringing with their dire upbringing, present their hanging as a 20th century murder trial. Just about any time Penelope seems to get a tad too self-serving, they’re there to remind you she’s just as wily as her husband, too!

That said, Penelope is a charming narrator and a witty one, too. Her exchanges with the vain, self-important Helen of Troy are as catty as anything I’ve read this year; her dim view of the afterlife and the people who come knocking about these days, trying to contact the spirit world:

“They want to hear about stock-market prices and world politics and their own health problems and such stupidities… it’s a waste of energy to spend time with these people, and so exasperating.” (pg 186)

Like any retelling of an old story, it’s all the better if you’re familiar with the original. While Atwood never had me running back and forth to Richard Lattimore (or Robert Fagles or EV Rieu, etc), I think a passing familiarity with the Odyssey makes this one an easier read; if you’re familiar with the other stories/myths surrounding Penelope and Odysseus, then all the better, too.

Still, the book works on it’s own. It’s a retelling of, not a commentary on, and it’s an entertaining one at that: witty, lively and clever. It’s certainly a minor Atwood, lacking in the same message or depth as The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake, but don’t let that discourage you.

Rating: 7/10. A fun, if quick, read and I’d bet Atwood was enjoying herself, too. I banged through this one in a couple of days, carrying it around and reading in snatches here and there. Recommended!

(Related: MI Finley – The World of Odysseus)




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