Published 2005, Cannongate, 221pp
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
The Penelopiad is a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey but instead of Odysseus, his wife is the protagonist . It is told from the perspective of Penelope who has long been existing (not living, obviously, as she is dead, a fact that she keeps reminding the reader) in the underworld and has decided to tell her own story after witnessing how much the tale of her and Odysseus has been adapted and changed over the years. It is written largely in prose and is interspersed with Choruses that offer a light interlude in the story in the form of saucy and fun verses. These are told from the viewpoint of twelve of Penelope’s maids and although they are a bit whimsical they were damning of Odysseus and Telemachus, the men who murdered them. The death of her maids is something that plays heavily on Penelope’s conscience and is part of the reason she feels the need to tell the truth.
Soon after they were wed, Odysseus left Ithaca to fight in the Trojan war alongside Helen’s jilted husband Menelaus in order to return her to her marital home. After many years of absence, young men started inviting themselves to stay at Penelope’s palace. It didn’t take long for the number of potential suitors to rise into the hundreds, all attempting to woo Penelope into their bed so they could rule Ithaca and the wealth Odysseus had amassed. The story describes how Penelope outwitted them for twenty years in the hope that her husband would return and find her faithful. I really enjoyed learning about Homer’s epics through this story as Atwood makes regular references to events in The Iliad and The Odyssey and it has certainly piqued my interest in the original classical texts.
Penelope’s narrative slips between her retelling of her life, her personal thoughts on certain events and her adventures in the underworld. Once she has told a particular part of her story, she often mentions how she sees the characters involved in death. The main character she interacts with is her cousin, Helen of Troy. She very much blames Helen for all her sufferings and treats her with disdain. It is clear that Penelope has little time for Helen’s good looks and her arrogant attitude. Although not vital to the story, I enjoyed reading these asides as it highlighted another reason why Penelope might want to retell her story. It was abundantly clear that Helen believed herself superior to Penelope because she drove men to war and men fell at her feet and enjoyed reminding Penelope that she was plain and just waited for her husband to come home. She needed to set the record straight.
The writing style was unusual and thus captivating. At 221 pages, it is a short read but I feel like a lot of things happened. I particularly liked the maid’s choruses throughout the book and I found they were best read aloud. Atwood tells us at the end of the story that she included the verses to reflect a tradition in Ancient Greece where satirical plays and ditties were performed before great dramas to entertain the audience. I loved this aspect of the story and I felt it reminded the reader that something terrible was coming. They are bittersweet as although they are told in quite a jovial manner, the tragic undertone is still very clear. Although heavily alluding to their death from the start of the novella, we don’t know what actually led to their deaths until the story progresses and Atwood leaves some details to be told through these verses. I feel the story of the maids is often overlooked. I have watched the film and read stories based upon Homer’s epics yet I knew very little about her maids so I’m really glad I’ve picked this up. It has really inspired me to read more classical texts.