Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Books Completed: 46
Completion Date: March 2007
Publication Year: 2006
Received from Random House prior to 2007.
Part of The Myths series

This book counts for both The Spring Reading Thing and The O'Canada Challenge.
The internationally acclaimed Myths series brings together some of the finest writers of our time to provide a contemporary take on some of our most enduring stories. Here, the timeless and universal tales that reflect and shape our lives–mirroring our fears and desires, helping us make sense of the world–are revisited, updated, and made new.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a sharp, brilliant and tender revision of a story at the heart of our culture: the myths about Penelope and Odysseus. In Homer’s familiar version, The Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan Wars, she manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son and, in the face of scandalous rumours, keep over a hundred suitors at bay. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills Penelope’s suitors and–curiously–twelve of her maids.

In Homer the hanging of the maids merits only a fleeting though poignant mention, but Atwood comments in her introduction that she has always been haunted by those deaths. The Penelopiad, she adds, begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? In the book, these subjects are explored by Penelope herself–telling the story from Hades — the Greek afterworld - in wry, sometimes acid tones. But Penelope’s maids also figure as a singing and dancing chorus (and chorus line), commenting on the action in poems, songs, an anthropology lecture and even a videotaped trial.

The Penelopiad does several dazzling things at once. First, it delves into a moment of casual brutality and reveals all that the act contains: a practice of sexual violence and gender prejudice our society has not outgrown. But it is also a daring interrogation of Homer’s poem, and its counter-narratives — which draw on mythic material not used by Homer - cleverly unbalance the original. This is the case throughout, from the unsettling questions that drive Penelope’s tale forward, to more comic doubts about some of The Odyssey’s most famous episodes. (“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.”)

In fact, The Penelopiad weaves and unweaves the texture of The Odyssey in several searching ways. The Odyssey was originally a set of songs, for example; the new version’s ballads and idylls complement and clash with the original. Thinking more about theme, the maids’ voices add a new and unsettling complex of emotions that is missing from Homer. The Penelopiad takes what was marginal and brings it to the centre, where one can see its full complexity.

The same goes for its heroine. Penelope is an important figure in our literary culture, but we have seldom heard her speak for herself. Her sometimes scathing comments in The Penelopiad (about her cousin, Helen of Troy, for example) make us think of Penelope differently – and the way she talks about the twenty-first century, which she observes from Hades, makes us see ourselves anew too.

Margaret Atwood is an astonishing storyteller, and The Penelopiad is, most of all, a haunting and deeply entertaining story. This book plumbs murder and memory, guilt and deceit, in a wise and passionate manner. At time hilarious and at times deeply thought-provoking, it is very much a Myth for our times.
This is a very short book, and that book description is really long, so I am not sure how much more can be said without telling you the whole book....

Anyways, I am going to be honest, I am not a big Margaret Atwood fan. I know that she is a Canadian icon, but she is just not what I would call my favourite author. For me, she is a hit or miss author that I feel compelled to keep reading because she is a famous, female, Canadian author. I am not so big on the famous, but she is female and Canadian, so those are big pluses for me. So, now I am sure you are wondering what the hits were, well, I will tell you: Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale. Now, I still have a lot of her books left to read, so that can change, but so far, she is just okay.

On to The Penelopiad. I really liked this book, making it a hit. I like Greek and Roman mythology and books that are centred around it are interesting to me. So, even though I was not interested in Atwood's other newer books, I felt compelled to give this a try. It tell the story of Penelope and Odysseus. It is all about the women, though. Normally mythology tends to pay attention to the warriors and the gods, but this story is told from Penelope's point of view and talks about the injustices that were done to her and to the women that served her that were killed.

So, here we have a book where you can hear Penelope's side of the story. If you are still not convinced, read it because there is a trial set in modern day where Odysseus is brough up for his crimes. That was pretty interesting, I have to tell you. The book is divided into sections, Penelope will talk and then there is a song or story or something told from someone else, and then it is back to Penelope again.

I now have three hits from Atwood, so all is well! My thanks to Random House for sending me this book!



  1. After reading Dream Angus, I am eager to read more of the books in the Myths series, of which this is one.

  2. I'm glad you liked it. I was thinking of reading it so now I definitely will.

  3. I haven't read anything by Atwood, but I have Penelopiad and The Handmaid's Tale on my TBR list, so I'm glad they were hits with you.

  4. I consider myself an Atwood fan but I've had this book sitting on my shelves for too long.

  5. After reading The Handmaid's Tale, I'm throwing myself into the Atwood fan side! I've been wanting to read this. Just never gotten around to it!

  6. I am really looking forward to reading this as I loved The Handmaids Tale, Bodily Harm and The Robber Bride. She has written a play version which is performing in Stratford by the RSC in the summer which I am hoping to go and see with my mum if I can be organised enough.

  7. Marg: Yes, I want to read more in the Myths series myself. I have since I first heard of it.

    Everyone else: Remember that this is a mythological-type story and that it might not be exactly what people have come to expect from Atwood. It is told from a feminine viewpoint, though.

  8. rhinoa: I wish that play was going to be there when I am going to be in Straford but nothing that I really want to see is, so I am going to see "The Phantom of the Opera" in Toronto. You must tell me how it is done and such if you make it there. I can see it being a very interesting play.


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