The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Review published on July 12, 2018.

I loved reading this book, it is a funny and witty retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of his long-suffering abandoned wife Penelope, who is now dead and talking to us from Hades.

Poor Penelope, left alone at home while Odysseus goes to war in Troy. She is waiting for him in Ithaca where there are ‘a lot of rocks and goats’ and is running the kingdom all by herself. Penelope is known for being a faithful wife, waiting patiently for her husband to return to her, but in The Penelopiad it is pointed out that she really had very little choice in the matter. Penelope has to deal with the many greedy suitors who do not ever seem to stop eating things. They turn up not for her but so they can get their hands on the kingdom of Ithaca. She also has to deal with her teenage son Telemachus who increasingly becomes, well, more like a sulky teenage boy. She also does not think much of her shallow and glamorous cousin Helen, who she blames for most of her troubles.

Atwood makes use of the fact that Odysseus is a well known liar, trickster and tall story teller, the familiar tale is, for instance, that ‘Odysseus had been to the land of the dead to consult the spirits’ but others tell Penelope that ‘No, he’d merely spent the night in a gloomy old cave full of bats’ which sounds a bit more plausible if less exciting. Much is made here about the dreadful fate of Penelope’s twelve maids who are probably some of the most forgotten victims in the original story. The maids form a sort of chorus and entwine their re-telling of the story with Penelope’s.

I am very familiar with the works of Homer and I do think you need a basic knowledge of it to really enjoy this story but even so this is intelligently written and a delicious twist on the original tale.

Short but very sweet, I would have liked it to be longer.

Sara Boorman 5/5

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Canongate Canons 9781786892485 pbk Apr 2018

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