The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Told in an unusual way, Atwood picks Penelope to be her main character as she delves into Greek Mythology and brings it to life in the 21st century.

Penelope is Odysseus’ wife and whilst she’s not as “popular”, I did at least recall two things about her:

  1. When Odysseus had not returned in years, many men took over the palace grounds and hounded Penelope to pick one of them as her next husband. To bide time she would claim to be weaving a cloth (a shroud, if we are being pernickety) for her father-in-law, but each night alongside her twelve maids, she would unpick the day’s work to slow the decision down… but I never knew anything more than just this line, Penelope was always a sub-story and not the main story. Nevertheless I had always admired her for this.
  2. When Odysseus finally returned, he killed all his wife’s pursuers and her maids.

Why the maids? It’s a question that isn’t clearly answered in any of the textbooks that analyse the myths, and so Atwood offers her take on it all.

I mentioned earlier that the tale is told in an unusual way and again there are 2 aspects why I think this:

  1. The book is told from two perspectives: from Penelope’s voice and also a singing chorus from the maids.
  2. It is told in modern times, i.e. Penelope is reflecting on her events from the underworld but also well aware of the current times playing on in the world.

Both aspects added such uniqueness to this tale, that there is no doubt that you’ll recall this book in years to come, whether you enjoyed or did not.

When I was studying classics in school, women in greek mythology always appeared to shine because of their beauty and not their brains; but Atwood alongside Miller, Barker, Haynes and many others are changing my perceptions and are teaching me the ingenuity, quick thinking and determination that many of these unsung heroines exhibited numerous times throughout their lives.

Atwood’s style is self-assured and provokes the reader to question, to think and to learn.

Having gone into this story knowing only two things, not only do I now understand these in more detail, I also know much more about Penelope’s childhood, personality and her marriage. Penelope’s story is fascinating and not well known, I am grateful that Atwood has allowed Penelope to be the star in her own story and come out of the shadows of Odysseus.

The Penelopiad is out now in paperback and ebook versions from Canongate.

Until next time, stay safe, Chloé x

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