In one of her latest novels, Margaret Atwood retells the tale of The Odyssey, this time from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. After all, how would you feel if your husband left for ten years to go fight for your beautiful cousin and then vanished for another ten? In this work, Atwood gives a voice to the untold story of Penelope, as told by her from the underworld of Hades.
Atwood begins the work with Penelope explaining that since she has been dead so long it seems like a good time to set the record straight and to share her piece of the story, especially as it regards Odysseus’s long absence and his rather awkward homecoming, where he slaughters the suitors and then hangs twelve of her favourite maids.
Why did Odysseus do that, anyway? Atwood does not offer an answer, but she does give a voice to the maids in this work. If you are familiar with ancient Greek drama, then you will be aware of how the chorus functions in a play. In this novel, the handmaids function as the chorus, using a number of different styles to convey their comments on the main story and to make sure that their voice is heard in addition to Penelope’s.
For those of you who are not aware of Margaret Atwood, or who have never read one of her works, this novella is definitely a good place to start. At just 196 rather smallish pages, this book can easily be read in half a day. Add to that it is a page turner in its own way and you can easily get through it instead of sitting on Facebook or Twitter for hours on end (do you really need to check for updates again? Really?).
This book has all of the classic Atwood markers: a blurred line between the living and the dead, a strong female heroine, invigorating poetry, evidence of strong research on the topic at hand, thoughtfulness, and challenging ideas that we take for granted. On this last topic, while this book may not get you to rethink everything you have ever thought about Odysseus and The Odyssey, it will certainly cast those thoughts in a new light.
For instance, what was Odysseus doing for all of those years he was journeying around the Aegean? Was he actually cavorting with goddesses, as legend would have you believe, or was it closer to James Joyce’s Ulysses, where it was simply a high-class whore house and he was “sponging off the madam?”
All in all, The Penelopiad is an excellent novel that sees Margaret Atwood in top form. Through the juxtaposition of prose and various other forms – including pop songs, sea shanties, and an idyll – Atwood shows her talent and her true virtuosity. More than that, however, she sheds a new light on an old story by adding a distinctly modern and human element to the classical epics.