The Penelopiad was chosen by my second book group to read for May – unfortunately that meeting had to be cancelled but I decided to read the book anyway. I have to say I probably wouldn’t have thought about reading it otherwise. I have read several of Margaret Atwood’s previous novels and enjoyed them, while some like Oryx and Crake I’ve simply not fancied much. The Penelopiad is Atwood’s re-telling of the myth of Odysseus from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife. I am not a fan of mythology – it all leaves me a bit cold really, but I did know a fair bit about the original myth before reading Atwood’ s take on it. Although I didn’t love this book as much as I know many people have, there were aspects of it I did really enjoy, and I appreciated the writing and the way it is cleverly structured. The Penelopiad is a short book, a quick read, so it wasn’t difficult to immerse myself in the story and take myself outside of a world I generally wouldn’t read about. It was completely coincidental but oddly fitting that I was reading this book at the same time as Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife.
“But I was the daughter of a Naiad. Behave like water, I told myself. Don’t try to oppose them. When they try to grasp you, slip through their fingers. Flow around them.”
Penelope’s is not the only voice we hear, the voices of the twelve hanged maids who form a chanting, singing chorus, tell the story of their own fate alongside that of Penelope. The chorus sections are brilliantly inventive, Atwood uses a variety of poetic and non-poetic conventions including; a rope-jumping rhyme, a lament, songs, a sea-shanty, a ballad, a court trial and a drama.
“Then sail, my fine lady, on the billowing wave –
The water below is as dark as the grave,
And maybe you’ll sink in your little blue boat –
It’s hope, and hope only, that keeps us afloat”
With the events chronicled by Homer long in the past, and from her position in Hades, Penelope looks back on her marriage to Odysseus, after which she had to leave her home in her father’s kingdom, of Sparta for that of her husband’s in Ithaca. Penelope tells us of her dislike and irritation of her cousin Helen, who is later the cause of the Trojan war. Following her marriage Penelope finds herself unpopular with Odysseus’s mother and nurse as she tries to settle into her new environment. Soon Penelope is a mother – her son Telemachus born shortly before Odysseus is called to war. Penelope is left to raise their son and take care of her husband’s kingdom. Expecting her husband to be gone for a long period of time, she is not expecting him to be away for twenty years. As the years go by, the kingdom is besieged by a succession of suitors all vying for the hand of Penelope in the expectation that Odysseus will never return. Penelope is sure that these suitors are more interested in her kingdom than in her, but she fears what may happen if she refuses them or tries to send them away. Penelope announces that she is beginning to weave a shroud for her father-in-law, and only when that shroud is complete will she decide which of the many suitors she will accept.
“The shroud itself became a story almost instantly. ‘Penelope’s web’, it was called; people used to say that of any task that remained mysteriously unfinished. I did not appreciate the term web. If the shroud was a web, then I was a spider. But I had not been attempting to catch men like flies: on the contrary, I’d merely been trying to avoid entanglement myself.”
Penelope enlists the help of twelve young maids, who each evening help to unravel the portion of the shawl completed that day – thus continually delaying the completion of the shawl. The maids are also asked to spy on the suitors, and carry back to Penelope news of their plans. Odysseus of course does eventually return, initially in disguise and slays the suitors, and the twelve maids who he believes were in league with them.
Woven into this re-telling of an ancient myth, are the feminist themes present in other works by Margaret Atwood. Here we see double standards that often exist between the sexes, and between classes. There are questions of justice in the story of the twelve hanged maids, with Penelope in Hades having to face up to her own complicity.
Usually when I read fiction I like to be drawn either to a character or a place, I don’t need to like a character just be drawn to them, fascinated by them and to believe in them. Similarly place is very important to me when I am reading. In The Penelopiad I wasn’t drawn to any characters and there wasn’t a setting that I could particularly latch on to. Therefore although the writing is brilliant, and the structure works superbly well, I couldn’t help but be left a little cold by this book, I was disappointed in myself I think that I wasn’t able to love it more.