Okay, this wins all the retellings (of which I am, admittedly, just starting to read)! I LOVED reading Penelope’s side of the story, seeing Odysseus’s cleverness from her perspective, gently allowing her unreliable narration. Was she faithful? Was she not? She sure wants us to think she was, just like Odysseus wants us to think he’s a tragic hero. They’re a perfect match for each other….which is only half the story!
Undoubtedly, the highlight of this book is the way it dissects the story of the twelve maids who were hung at Odysseus’s return. The historical, cultural, and sexual discussions surrounding their role in the story are both fascinating and horrifying. And so clever (which is fitting, in a book about Penelope and Odysseus). Every few chapters, the maids speak for themselves, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in song, sometimes in lecture, sometimes in a mock trial. Their righteous indignation is so simple and powerful, right from the beginning, with their “The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme”:
we are the maids
the ones you killed
the ones you failed
we danced in air
our bare feet twitched
it was not fair
with every goddess, queen, and bitch
from there to here
you scratched your itch
we did much less
than what you did
you judged us bad
This short little book is amazing, and anyone interested in stepping back from the classics and considering their stories with a new lens will LOVE it.
Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making.
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 storytelling 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.
Release Date: October 2005