I read my first Atwood back in 2010, at the urging of my friend Kate — it was, of course, The Handmaid’s Tale. Since then I have woven my steady way through her book list, finding favourites (Oryx and Crake! How good is Oryx and Crake?) and a couple that were rather difficult to get through (The Blind Assassin, for one). But one Atwood novel I never somehow got around to reading was one I already owned long before Kate set me on the path to Gilead: The Penelopiad.
I had bought this book because I am a Greek Mythology nut, and the idea of the Odyssey, but from the faithful Penelope’s perspective, appealed to me mightily when I saw this book in stores back in… maybe 2006, I think. Then I never read it, it got further and further, deeper and deeper towards the back of the TBR, and quite honestly, were it not for this book-a-day reading challenge I have set myself, it might easily have lain there another dozen years or more.
That would have been a shame. Because this is vintage Atwood, brilliant Atwood, in total command of an ancient tale, and even the modern language patterns (not to mention words: “factoid”?) she bestows upon this much-venerated lady is a total joy, as Atwood expands upon and reexamines the tales told of Penelope, that most patient of wives sitting calmly at home and fending off lecherous suitors while her husband took the long way home from the Trojan War for twenty damn years. Of most particular import to Atwood are Penelope’s maids, twelve young women hung by her son Telemachus at the behest of the returned Odysseus, for the crime of being raped and turned into playthings by the Suitors.
It’s a theme.
Even in this version of events, Penelope is a bit of a sadsack — she is always weeping about stuff, and when she confronts her jerk of a teenage son about his behaviour, she is shrill and unwise — and her cousin Helen is painted in the most unsympathetic of lights, which seems quite cruel; she was a victim of an arranged marriage, too — but as a vehicle for showcasing the truly appalling lot of women in general throughout history, their lack of agency and their constant physical and emotional peril, as well as the short shrift usually done them by historians, The Penelopiad is as brilliant as it is brutal, for all that it is lightly told, and with frequent poetical interruptions and leaps into the surreal. (That courtroom scene!)
Very glad to have finally read it.
TBR DAY 5: The Penelopiad (Canongate Myths #2) by Margaret Atwood
GENRE: Greek Mythology/Literature
TIME ON THE TBR: At least 12 years.
PURCHASED FROM: My copy has that telltale marker line across the bottom of its pages, so I must have bought it discounted or remaindered somewhere lost to the mists of time.