All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Mini Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

on August 8, 2019

The Penelopiad 
Margaret Atwood
Canongate Books
2018 (originally 2005), 199p
Read from my local libary

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

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 story-telling 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.

What feels like a lifetime ago now, in my year 12 advanced English course, we did a little bit of The Iliad by Homer. I found it quite hard going, probably because we were also studying The Canterbury Tales, a comedy of Shakespeare and also, W.B. Yeats. This is also almost 20 years ago now and I haven’t revisited Homer since. The Iliad more tells the tale of the siege of Troy, which I think most people have vague knowledge of, whether you’ve read any Homer or not. And The Odyssey is what happened after, Odysseus’ journey home to his faithful wife Penelope, who waited over 20 years for him to come back, holding off suitors in great numbers.

When I was looking for a novella for my Reading Women Podcast, a lot of the suggestions in the Goodreads group threw up this one by Margaret Atwood, which is kind of The Odyssey but told from the view of Penelope, his wife. Penelope is depicted as a plain cousin to the famed Helen of Troy, who was the entire reason for the battle of Troy. Ironically, it was Odysseus as a failed suitor for Helen that bound the rejected together with the premise that if ever Helen or her husband was threatened, the rest would answer a call to arms to defend them. So when Helen disappeared (either abducted or as a willing party with the handsome Paris), her husband Menelaus enacted that treaty, summoning the failed suitors and their armies to aid him in battle. This I’ve read about before from a different perspective in Madeleine Miller’s Song Of Achilles.

But this isn’t about that battle. Penelope is depicted as plain, definitely not beautiful like Helen but quietly very intelligent and Odysseus won a tournament for her hand by cheating. She is somewhat isolated in her new home, an unfriendly rocky terrain with disinterested in-laws and only her maids and Odysseus’ overbearing childhood nurse for company, who strips Penelope of most of her agency by doing everything for Odysseus and also the son Penelope bears him. When Odysseus has to leave, Penelope is left mostly to rule alone, her in-laws losing hope after a while that their son will ever return. Her father-in-law retreats to another property. Her mother-in-law dies before Odysseus returns. Soon Penelope is overrun with men vying for her hand (and the Kingdom). Most are much younger than her and have no interest in her other than what they will gain by marrying her. Penelope is forced to employ her maids in a game of trickery, weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, telling the suitors she cannot possibly consider any offers until she completes her pious task. Unbeknownst to them, Penelope painstakingly unpicks her work at night to reweave the next day so that her task may never be complete.

I think the thing that worked so much for me is that Atwood reworked this in modern language although kept a lot of the traditional aspects of the story. Penelope is given a very strong voice and it’s also interspersed with a chorus in the form of the maids, who meet a gruesome end upon Odysseus’ return. Part of Atwood’s working of this story is to examine the why of the downfall of the maids, the possible reasoning for it and whether or not Penelope was privy to the reasoning and what her thoughts on it might’ve been. It’s an exploration of the life of people who weren’t Kings and Queens, or descendants of Gods etc of this time. Simple maids who relied upon others for protection and what they often had to endure in these positions. Often they were raped (sometimes even with their ‘owners’ permission) and used as entertainment by guests. The chorus of the maids provides a voice to previously unheard minor characters in these sorts of stories, with something that is still relevant and easy to connect to in these modern times – the treatment of women, especially women who are without power of their own and subject to someone else’s. It might not be so easy to sympathise with Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda (allegedly) who was so beautiful thousands were slaughtered in the quest for her but it’s much easier to see the plight of the maids, who are given a chance to shine here.

At 199p, this is a brief read but Atwood packs a surprising amount into it. It’s kind of like……a comfortable way to be pushed outside of my comfort zone, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the style of writing and the storytelling but then again, it’s Margaret Atwood, so that’s no real surprise.


Book #119 of 2019

This is yet another book counting towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge! I’m really trying hard to lift my game here. So this checks off prompt #9 – A novella. And it’s the 11th book read for the challenge. Progress!

One response to “Mini Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

  1. […] A novella – The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. My review. […]

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