The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Author – Margaret Atwood
Publishing Year – 2005
Genre – Mythologies, Re-tellings
My Rating – 4.5/5
Pages – 198

“Happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked”

So which doors in the tale of Homer’s Odessey have been kept locked? Why were the twelve handmaidens hanged when Odysseus returned and what was Penelope really upto? During the twenty years that Odysseus was away, contriving an increasingly fabulous lists of adventures — were they only tall tales constructed out of rumours and gossip?

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These are the questions that Margaret Atwood asks in her book The Penelopiad. It is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey as told from the voice of Penelope. Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus, daughter of King Icarius, cousin of Helen of Troy is now speaking to us from beyond the grave as she tells her life story spinning “a thread of my own”. This book has been my first foray into reading modern retellings of ancient Greek or Roman mythologies, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was not a moment of boredom while reading this book. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I highly recommend that you do so (provided you have some interest in Greek and Roman mythologies).

The story has a eerily splendid beginning as Penelope addresses us from the land of Hades and the layers of time mingle and dissolve away as we hear her story. Instead of beginning it in the 8th century BC when Penelope’s life is being unravelled, Margaret Atwood gracefully modulates between the different time eras by beginning in the present time. Her descriptions of the underworld, the ghosts and their ways of looking at the living, the white fields of asphodels and the sparkling waters of forgetfulness are absolutely stunning. She writes in a compressed manner, not overly decorative, but simple, powerful and very engaging. This is not a fantasy novel which can take boundless flights of imaginations; it is a novel beautifully forged and welded within the story of Homer’s Odyssey, creating a story within a story, making the old stories shimmer with new meaning and examining a different perspective to the Odyssey.

Penelope refocuses the grand narratives of the ancient myths of Odysseus by questioning the valiant hero, shedding light on the dynamics of her legendary family and giving a vindicating account of her twelve handmaidens who were cruelly hanged. She speaks of “the plain truth”, her story. But how true is it? The Homeric myths glorify Penelope as the faithful, submissive and utterly patient wife who waited twenty years for her husband’s return in the wake of a hundred and more suitors and a lack of any reassuring news while the scandalizing rumours defame her as a duplicitous schemer, a femmes fatales– which is she? Margaret Atwood is playing with two levels of gender stereotypes here and true to the nature of these, she does not pick one. Penelope, in the end, remains an enigma. She is clever and she takes us into her confidence and speaks convincingly of her narratives of self-justification but is Penelope now spinning her own thread (as duplicitously) as she spun her father-in-laws shroud?

Penelope’s story is sharply conflicted by the tales of the twelve handmaids who repeatedly blame her for their hanging. These are the voices of the repressed, the uncanny dark side of the grand narrative. They haunt their enemies throughout his lives: “we’ll stick to you like your shadow, soft and relentless as glue. Pretty maids all in a row. (P. 193)” They transform the Penelopiad into a sea of dissident voices that challenge the authenticity of Penelope’s voice with their sinister little lyrics and violent humour. This is one story where many stories are told and each as interesting and enigmatic as the other. Who gets the last word in the end, Penelope or the handmaids? Read to find out.

This book has sparked my interest in reading more about Greek and Roman myths and their modern retellings, and as a result, I’ve decided to read “Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles” by Jeanette Winterson which is a modern day retelling of the greek hero Atlas who holds the burden of the earth on his shoulders and “Daphnis and Chloe” by Longus which is an ancient greek romance. This book will steal you and speak to you with a false and irresistible calm, this story is spectacular in its dramatic dimensions and like any true drama, casts doubt on the absolute truthfulness on any single account. It is fantastic– definitely rereading this.

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