The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

Should I be slightly embarrassed to say that this is the first Margaret Atwood book I have picked up and actually read?  I feel like I should be blushing from top to toe.

But I think I am now firmly hooked.  If the rest of her work shows such wit and whimsy as this slim retelling of the tale of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus, then I shall have trouble removing my hands from future volumes.

While I am of a mind to make confessions*. Despite a smattering of ancient history amongst my university papers that required reading of such classics as Thucydides, Herodotus and a bit of Aristophanes too; I have not touched Homer with a barge pole.  So I am reading this retelling of the tale blind, as it were.

The quick version of the story – Odysseus wins Penelope as a wife, they remove themselves from her paternal home in Sparta for Ithaca.  Penelope’s cousin, Helen, gets in the way of marital bliss with her wayward behaviour in legging it off to Troy with Paris.  Odysseus must fulfill his oath to Menelaus and so he heads off for a ten year adventure on the Turkish coast.  Once that little matter is settled, and Troy is duly dealt with, the great man heads home.  The long way.  The way that takes another ten years.

In the meantime, his devoted wife Penelope is holding everything together.  She has their son, Telemachus, who turns into something of a brat shortly before his father finally makes his way back to the family home and she does her best to fend off the suitors for her hand.  They, of course, think she is fair game as a rich widow with her husband well dead.

If you thought my précis of Homer’s great Odyssey was tongue in cheek, you should pick up a copy of this and read Atwood’s story.  It is full of wit, barbed commentary and is told from Penelope’s point of view after her arrival in what appears to be the Asphodel Meadows**.  In short, it was terrific.

Penelope has a great modern voice discussing and describing ancient events. Unfortunately I didn’t mark much up for blogging as I was too busy reading and enjoying the flow of the story.
For my friends of a crafty nature, here is a bit of wisdom for you.

The teaching of crafts to girls has fallen out of fashion now, I understand, but luckily it had not in my day.  It’s always an advantage to have something to do with your hands.  That way, if someone makes an inappropriate remark, you can pretend you haven’t heard it.  Then you don’t have to answer.

Oh, and for those of you who may be parents, another gem.

Where was I?  Oh yes.  Marriages.  Marriages were for having children, and children were not toys and pets.  Children were vehicles for passing things along.  These things could be kingdoms, rich wedding gifts, stories, grudges, blood feuds.  Through children, alliances were forged; through children, wrongs were avenged.  To have a child was to set loose a force in the world.

So what are you passing along to your kids?

And finally, a comeback for those accused of being too young***.

She kept saying that I was certainly very young.  Odysseus remarked dryly that this was a fault that would correct itself in time.

I particularly like this last quote.  It is a good example of the wit and acerbic style of writing.  It is wry and clever and funny.  It deals with the tragedy of the twelve maids and the gory end of the suitors, but really it is this lightness and bitterness and wry humour that Atwood brings to Penelope’s narration that makes this book a delight to read.

It is 196 pages long, but felt like only 50.  If you happen upon this in the library, you will not go too far wrong if you choose to bring it home with you.
Happy reading.

* It is that sort of book review, really.
** feel free to correct me if you are a classical scholar.
*** no longer likely around here, sadly.

One thought on “The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

  1. Fantastic review! I felt exactly the same way, she really is very clever. I listened to the audio version and the chorus of dead girls was done really well. I see I only gave it 3/5 stars on GR, but it really was more a 3.5, 3.75.


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