Circe – Madeline Miller

9781408890080Ok, sod it. I’m not getting through my blogging backlog. Now you’re just getting the ones I’m interested in writing (so no rereads, no graphic novels, probably).

I like Bright Air Black a lot. This is going to be quite relevant to this post, because to some extent, the books are aiming for the same thing – they both take a woman from Classical mythology, a witch, someone notably powerful and female, and seek to tell her story as something real. Bright Air Black takes Medea, while Circe goes for her aunt instead. I’m saying this now before I get very far into it – Bright Air Black does it better, and for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost because it makes no apologies for who Medea is. She does terrible, awful things, and at no point does the book shy away from them or make excuses, it doesn’t shrink her to acceptability. Instead, it makes her comprehensible, someone whose motivations we can follow, even if we’d never choose the same path ourselves. We can look at the end point she reaches and go “I see why she did what she did”. It takes nothing away from her mythological crimes – they are all acknowledged and included, in every gorey, visceral detail – but makes her human to us. Circe, however, fails for me because it is trying too hard to make us like her. And so it apologises, it makes her smaller, more fragile… it detracts from what she is in myth in order to excuse her. And it makes her seem weak. She fawns for male attention at every turn, lessening herself to make space for them, then being hurt by them – it is a litany of the pains of women, and for all that Miller says in her words that Circe grows indifferent to them, that she learns her lessons and moves on, becomes powerful and distant… that’s not what she shows us. She simply shows us Circe turning from each hurt to a fresh one, full of new mistakes. There’s none of the unapologetic, frightening power of a witch – the whole thing about powerful maidens particularly being a terror to the Ancient male mind – instead it’s a story of a sad, lonely woman who has been made to sound brilliant, but is very little of the sort, and undermines herself without development or learning. It’s a story that says “powerful women are doomed by their power, and the solution to happiness is not to be powerful at all”. This is not exactly the moral I’m looking for in my rewrites of Classical myths, thank you very much.

And a lot of that is simply because I love the idea of the maiden who frightens men. Or the woman in control of her own sexuality and fearsomeness, and using both to be who she is at 100% and never pausing to apologise. I would love a book that took this demon of Classical literature and turned her into a protagonist. Someone powerful and terrifying simply by being an unapologetic woman. So a lot of my dislike is borne out of disappointment. It wasn’t the story I’d expect or want about Circe. In the same way any story that took Camilla and made her meek would be a failure for me, or Medea.

If there’s one thing I can say for Miller, it’s that she does write beautiful prose. There’s a sad and moving poetry to it, especially her descriptions of the natural world, and the way the seasons change, or the landscape around Circe. She always has the exact turn of phrase to bring to mind the way something moves just so, the way a lioness sleeps and a wolf howls, and the shape of each plant picked for magic. I can absolutely see what there is to attract people to her about that. The pages flowed away quickly with it too, it wasn’t the sort of prose that needs slow contemplation or going over. It was a very easy, very relaxing read, in terms of prose and pacing, which was nice, at least.

But for all that, it still wasn’t worth it, especially when she was using that lovely prose to say one thing and show us entirely another. She has an idea of the story she wants to tell us, but the story itself seems to be running away in another direction. It’s an odd feeling to read that, because it means every page feels at odds with itself.

Obviously as I’ve thought through all this, I’ve wondered if this has all been intended, whether this was entirely the point. To make it just a sad story of a woman struggling with power she doesn’t really want, but honestly, it doesn’t add up. At turns, Circe loves her power, she revels in it, then at the same time shrinks herself away from it. The book is also full of people telling her how small she is, how stupid, how slow, how weak and… somehow it never really gets round to disproving them, or telling them it doesn’t matter. It’s really frustrating because the Circe of myth is powerful, is better and stronger and greater. And yet here she’s… not.

I also cannot find it in myself to support the way Miller has suborned the original myth. Like Medea, Circe is a woman apart from the world, made different by her immortality and her witchcraft. The Classical world was of course a misogynistic one, and so to be a powerful woman like them, something had to be wrong. It couldn’t simply be accepted as truth. And yet, instead of simply making it true, accepting that Circe did not conform to Classical womanhood and making that a strength rather than a failing… nah, gotta cut off some corners and fit her into the misogyny box. Woo…

Which brings me to my next, distressing point… with one solitary exception, every other woman in the entire book is vapid, self-obsessed, vain and generally a nasty caricature of a misogynist ideal of womanhood. Many of them are nymphs, but I don’t think this constitutes an excuse. There’s nothing to them but their looks and fawning over men, even Pasiphae. The only one who isn’t like this is Penelope, but even she spends her part of the book in the orbit of men, be it her husband or her son. I’m not sure she and Circe have conversation about things beside men entirely at any point. By contrast, many of the male characters are well fleshed out and varied. Yes, some are tyrants, but some are complex. Telemachus and Telegonos, the sons of Odysseus, as well as Odysseus himself, are to my mind given the most to work with of characters in the book, even including Circe herself, which is just a little perverse. But even the fairly shallow villains have more depth than the background women. Circe’s mother’s only concern is her jewellery and her self-aggrandisement, and she focuses on these with the simplest of emotions. She’s easily bored, dismissive and that’s… kind of it. The rest of the nymphs are the same. It’s boring and it’s insulting. I know Miller is trying to make Circe better than those around her, but could she done it any way other than “ololol most women are vapid and dull”? Is Circe the Classical version of “not like other girls”? I wish it were not so.

Fundamentally, I found this book frustrating. I think it would be so no matter what, as the misogyny, poor characterisations and confused storytelling would shine through regardless, but it’s doubly evident having read Bright Air Black. Because this could have been brilliant, had Miller not been bogged down by stereotypes, and so determined to make Circe nice and likeable, she took away all about her that was good and strong and admirable. Women don’t need to be nice to be worthwhile.

This also fits in with what I’ve been told about The Song of Achilles, so I suspect there is no chance of me reading that now (not that I was likely to anyway) – apparently it’s determined to make dudes fancying dudes require misogyny, which, bleh, as well as mapping a modern view of sexuality onto the ancient world (don’t get me started). Given what she’s managed to do with a book from a woman’s perspective, I dread to think what a man’s gives her licence for.

I gave Circe 2/5 on Goodreads, though I was torn between 2 and 3. Had I 10 to play with, it would have got a 5 for solid “meh”, but it got a 2 because it’s definitely on the lower side – I asked boyfriend for help rating, and he suggested that to get a 3, the book needs something I can say “but it’s good at x”, and while the prose is nice, it’s not special. I’m never going to sell it to someone as “sure the story’s a bit crap but you’ll really enjoy the prose” because it’s not that great. Other people write good prose that manages to tell a decent story. So, 2 it is. Alas.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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