The Blurb (from Goodreads):
In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—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 twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred 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 her maids.
In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.
In July, my daughter and I flew to Athens to meet my husband and sons for three weeks in the Greek islands. Her English teacher suggested that she read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood in preparation. It’s only a slim book, and so I tucked it in her bag. I read it while we were in Crete, my daughter having thrown it aside.
The Penelopiad is essentially the famous story of Odysseus and his long journey home after the fall of Troy, told from the point of view of his wife Penelope and her twelve maids, who were all hanged by her son Telemachus at the end of the saga. I love retellings of myth and fairytales, and I studied The Odyssey in my first degree, so I was really looking forward to seeing what Margaret Atwood would do with this ancient tale.
It was not quite what I was expecting. Each section is followed by a different poem or song told in the voices of the twelve hanged maids. Margaret Atwood says in her introduction that they ‘form a chanting and singing Chorus.’ For example, ‘The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme’ begins:
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair
Another is entitled ‘The Chorus Line: Kiddie Mourn’; yet another is called ‘The Chorus Line: If I Were A Princess, A Popular Tune’ and is structured like a sea shanty:
Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave –
The water below is as dark as the grave
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat –
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat.
One of the maids’ chapters is presented as an anthropology lecture, positing ‘possibly our rape and subsequent hanging represent the overthrow of a matrilineal moon-cult by an incoming group of usurping patriarchal father-god-worshipping barbarians.’
It is all very clever, and Margaret Atwood is adept at the ventriloquist’s craft, though Penelope’s own voice – wry and self-conscious – is strangely modern. Each chapter is very short, and basically tells the same story as The Odyssey, but at a remove since Penelope is not present and is only repeating tales she has heard. This, of course, has a distancing and deadening effect … and adds to the artificial quality created by the hanged maids’ chorus.
I read it all in a matter of hours, and overall I loved the bravado of it all. I’m not sure anyone but Margaret Atwood would have got away with it. The back-cover blurb describes it as ‘playful’, and that adjective certainly fits. I am not a fan of satire or parody, and so would have much preferred a more serious attempt to engage with the retelling of this ancient myth. Nonetheless, it was very readable and quite amusing – if one can forgive using the hanging of twelve young women for comic effect.