The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.
The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.
I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.
I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.
I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.