In homer’s account in the Odyssey, Penelope – daughter of King Icarius of Sparta, wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for 20 years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan war after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumours, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, Telemachus and keep over a 100 suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and – curiously – twelve of Penelope’s maids. This is what the original Greek myth says….
But what does Atwood’s version of the story says?
In a brilliant twist with contemporary lingo to the ancient myth, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the voice to Penelope… Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making; and to her twelve Maids. Speaking from heaven (or hell or afterlife), Penelope gain a good hindsight into answers to the ancient-old questions:
- What led to the hanging of the maids?
- What was Penelope really up to, during the absence of Odysseus?
I read the The Wilderness Tips and The Handmaid’s Tale and this is my third Atwood. It is dazzling, playful re-telling that left me sniggering. Atwood combines humour, wit, poetry and superb storytelling skills and weaves an irresistible tale of Penelope’s life story, in true tradition of Atwood, a vestige of Handmaid’s tale but to lesser degree, voicing a woman’s inner struggle and tribulation of being a woman in ancient times.
You are told of Penelope’s early childhood and how her feminist idea was formed, and I can’t help but to find out this passage describes how her beliefs coincide with mine:
You can see by what I’ve told you that I was a child who learned early the virtues – if such they are – of self sufficiency. I could see that I would have to look out for myself in the world. I could hardly count on family support.
You feel her disappointment of raising her son, Telemachus, on her own and grew up to me a young man who defies her authority. You feel her frustration as Helen goes all out to flaunt her seduction prowess and that no man could resist her. You found yourself warm up to Odysseus because he was such a lovely husband to Penelope when he became an excellent raconteur after sex, talking and telling stories to his wife. Odysseus finally won over me when his mother complained that Penelope was very young (she married Odysseus when she’s 15), and Odysseus remarked dryly that this was a fault that would correct itself in time (pg 60). Spot on, Odysseus! Good one!
Penelope is an intelligent woman who knows her place, suspecting that her husband might have spent 20 years entertaining the goddess, she said:
I was a kind girl, kinder than Helen. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so – in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging – but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.
The maid’s chorus is especially entertaining as it is written in poetry, combining burlesque and playful drama. I felt entertained and horrified at the same time, it was really a strange reading experience.
What I like about it:
A full mark for a re-telling of a myth in such gripping way, for prompting me to pick it up from the shelf and have me spellbound from start to finish. I finished the book in one day. Mesh poetry with playwright and inject a good sense of humour and you get a winner, it’s Atwood at her best.
What I like least about it:
We were told why the maids are slaughtered but we weren’t told why Odysseus disappeared for such a long time. Where was he? What did he do? How did he find his way back? It’s a minor issue, perhaps it is intended to be a mystery that Atwood did not wish to decipher.
What I think is corny:
There was a passage that Penelope’s mother said to her:
Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
Beautiful….. But isn’t that the opening line of the Spielberg’s movie The Memoir of Geisha? Not to the exact, but something to that effect?
The Canongate hardback version of the Penelopiad has a beautiful binding with quality paper and Red page header in very page, albeit a difficult to spot cursive book title that is overcast but a darker background. The Canongate Myth series intrigues me. Until I clear all my current book pile, or at least get it down to minimum, I’ll approach the series with rigour and read them all.
Hardback. Publisher: Canongate, 2005; Length: 199 pages; Setting: Land of Greek Gods. Source: Library. Finished reading at: 9 April 2010