October is here and if you’re still looking for some inspiration for your costumes, this book might have just the right amount of awesome twists and new takes on well-known characters. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood was first published in 2005 and is re-telling the Odyssey from Odysseus’ wife’s, Penelope, point of view.
You don’t have to be a history buff to follow the plot of the book. What you need to know is the popular and repeatedly re-invented story of Odysseus and his voyage home after the Trojan war. While his adventures are celebrated in songs and glorified throughout history, his wife Penelope is a mere idealization of a woman and has no real story of her own. She patiently awaits her beloved’s return, remains devoted and protects their kingdom. The pinnacle of the faithful wife. But what happened during all those years that she had to look out for herself? This book gives answers.
When Penelope first introduces herself, the reader finds out that she is actually dead. She currently resides in the underworld and therefore offers a unique point of view because down there, she has gotten to know things that, during her lifetime, were concealed from her. The main character projects a strong sense of determination to set things right which makes this book not only into a fictional autobiography but also a self-justification.
Although Penelope strongly believes her version of the story and is convinced that certain facts were passed on incorrectly, her state of death makes her an unreliable source because she tends to forget certain things. This technique of tricking the reader to question the whole time whether what they read is the truth, can be found in several of Atwood’s works and makes it more intriguing and authentic since ancient tales are full of illogical plot holes.
The fascination for death and mortality is also typical for Atwood and in The Penelopiad, she can fully play with those concepts. The underworld, Gods, prophecies, unwordly creatures are all part of this story. Interwoven are the fates of the twelve maids who were play-companions for Penelope’s son, Telemachus, and then became her personal assistants. They never receive names, nor are their voices distinguishable but they are responsible for the variety of genres. In between the chapters, they perform poems, and one of each a song, play, novel, drama, ballad anthropology and a lecture. The content of the different styles is mostly a very creative re-interpretation of the current happenings, or a short insight into the maids’ tragic lifes. For both, the reader and Penelope, their fate is something to think about.
What can’t be missing in a story about Ancient Greece, inspired by mythical tales and legends, are supernatural elements and epic adventures. But this is not your average book and so Atwood brilliantly reduces and ridicules the rumors of Odysseus’ heroism. Throughout the story, she demystifies the supernatural and infuses it with incredible humor.
“Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill. Some of the men had been eaten by cannibals, said some; no, it was just a brawl of the usual kind, said others, with ear-bitings and nosebleeds and stabbings and eviscerations.” p. 83
One of the main motivations behind this retelling is the deconstruction of gender myths. Penelope’s wifely tasks and the crushing expectations she had to face are as much part of her story as her incredible wit and inventiveness when she handled all of the suitors trying to snatch her throne. The postmodern and feminist aspects of this book are seamlessly incorporated and deserve their own post. So for now, I will say: Atwood not only achieves to give Penelope a voice, she excels with giving her a true character with faults and actual feelings.
Atwood is a master of blending fact and fiction, as well as mixing genres and writing styles. To anyone who enjoys Greek mythology, this book is going to be a blast! And to anyone who is not interested in that: still read it because it really is a brilliant and extremely entertaining book and with ranging at ~193 pages not too much of a task.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: 100% recommendation
source: Atwood, Margaret. The Penelopiad. Canongate: Canongate Books, 2006.