When I was a kid, I was deep into Greek and Roman mythology. That interest stayed with me during Greek and Latin classes in high school, but once I was lured into the traps of modern literary fiction, I never really looked back. Recently, a slew of retellings of famous mythological stories started coming out, including some that tell these stories from new points of view. (I will read you eventually, Circe.)
I’m not sure why I decided to pick up The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, but I’m glad I did. It tells the story of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, and her twelve handmaidens, who were hanged by Odysseus and her son Telemachus. Starting with her childhood, The Penelopiad introduces a myriad of other recognizable characters, including the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen of Troy herself. The twenty years during which Odysseus is gone present a number of difficulties for Penelope: from trying to assert her rightful place within the palace, to fending off drunk and belligerent suitors, Penelope has to do it all on her own. She eventually builds a sort of support network through her young handmaidens, but they are tragically killed off immediately after Odysseus’s return, in what is probably best described as an ‘honor’ killing.
A retelling of a traditionally male-centered story by a woman is by default going to be feminist, and Atwood delivers her usual cutting insights. I love that she chose to not only tell Penelope’s story, but also that of her twelve handmaidens. It added a fresh, somewhat more intersectional point of view, while also allowing Atwood to play with literary styles and genres.
I won’t say this story blew me away, but it’s a short, enjoyable read, particularly if you’re interested in mythology.