Well. This was very very interesting indeed.
No, really. I’m using “interesting” honestly here. And I think it’s the best adjective for the book… far more than “gripping” or any of the adjectives I might usually go for. Oh, and it’s very very good. I should say that now too. But, well, I am/was a Classicist, and some things never go away. And at the point when I’ve read nearly all the works she lists in the Notes as being her inspiration/research (including Trickster Makes This World, which I really feel I ought to reread at some point), I feel like maybe I am very much the target audience here. My interests – 100% catered for.
That being said, I’m still trying to decide what to say about it… beyond that it was good and interesting. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all – I thought it would just be a straight retelling of the story of the Odyssey but from Penelope’s perspective, seeing things from her side, maybe undercutting the grandeur of the story with the realism of the world of women at the time. And… it partly is that. But at times it doesn’t feel like Penelope’s story at all. Because it has a flip side as well, and that is the tale of the twelve maids hanged after the massacre of the suitors for their “disloyalty”. And it’s the two stories sewn together, sometimes undercutting one another and sometimes reinforcing, giving you two sets of unreliable narration, one from a self-confessed liar and the other from a group who change their story from chapter to chapter. It’s subtle masterpiece of giving you no idea who to believe, and not leaving you with any clearer narrative of the Odyssey than you started out with, even if you take into account all the variant narratives which exist.
But that’s one of the things I love about it. Because Penelope never actually settles on one narrative to say “yes, this is what happened”, especially when discussing Odysseus’ exploits. She absolutely says there are variants, from the noble to the base, the fantastic to the mundane, but at no point does she give any sort of hint of believing any particular one in favour of the other. She talks as though she believes the gods are real and present, but hints at their absence in the way she presents some of the stories of Odysseus’ journey. Nothing is settled or set.
In some sense, she brings this in right from the beginning. Atwood focusses on Penelope’s heritage including Naiad, and talks about what that might mean in terms of who she was. She draws heavily on watery imagery in terms of flexibility and fluidity, of personality, of truth, and I think this more than anything is the underlying theme of the whole story. You have Penelope, Odysseus and the maids, all giving flexible, changeable narratives, and never letting on anything more – cold, inscrutable, completely fluid. And the format of the book supports that too. It’s not just told in simple narrative, but switches between prose, poetry, play-script format and court-room transcript. The twelve maids form a chorus of sorts, but not one constrained to the classical format – they embrace all sorts of metres, rhythms and styles to convey their bleak message, sometimes slipping into anger, sometimes cold melancholy, sometimes dark humour, but always in a fitting and fitted style. It makes for a book that I don’t think I can completely appreciate in one reading – I will find more with every reading to pick apart, finding this particular bit of verse so very interesting. And if that’s not the mark of a great book, I don’t know what is.
That being said, and much like The Handmaid’s Tale, I find the characterisation of the Penelopiad a little remote. This isn’t a criticism, exactly, because it absolutely fits the tone of what Atwood is trying to do, but there’s that dissatisfaction at never quite actually knowing the character. You feel like Penelope is putting up a front – she talks about how often she bursts into floods of tears but you never get anything other than calm thoughtfulness from her in her dialogue/narration – and you want to get past it. But of course you never will. It’s a very successful bit of utter frustration, and I think partially because it does make her a fitting equal of Odysseus. She sets herself up as a deceiver on par with him, just operating within a different sphere, and like Odysseus, you never feel like you know what’s really real (I’m talking Odysseus as commonly portrayed, not just in the Homeric texts). While I don’t think Penelope’s characterisation is necessarily the most interesting thread Atwood has created (the maids’ story is just so well and varyingly told), the way she has chosen to do it is probably about the best way it could have been done. It is better than I was expecting of it, and better than most reinterpretation of Classics I’ve seen more broadly.
And then there’s just the prose. Atwood remains thoroughly, thoroughly excellent with a turn of phrase, and pulls you in immediately and lastingly. If I had to call it, I’d say the writing of The Handmaid’s Tale is slightly better, but we’re splitting hairs here. The trick she mainly pulls off here is managing to take that diversity of form and still creating a coherent whole. She’s got various viewpoints, opinion and versions of the truth, but it still feels like one story, and that is really something to praise.
I’m just going to get repetitive, at this point. It was an excellent book that I vastly enjoyed, and sure, some of that was the fact that I was very much the target audience, but some of it was just… Atwood can really, really write. She’s got the spirit of the works she’s invoking just so, and it manages to differ from them while treating them respectfully and honestly. She gives a realistic voice to characters I am deeply familiar with, and I don’t at any point feel like she’s overstepped the lines of what existed there all along. Which is what I want, as a fussy Classics pedant.
This is definitely encouraging me to seek out more Atwood in future, but next up, we’re back to Banks, with Surface Detail.