The Penelopiad

The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus

The internationally acclaimed Myths series brings together some of the finest writers of our time to provide a contemporary take on some of our most enduring stories. Here, the timeless and universal tales that reflect and shape our lives–mirroring our fears and desires, helping us make sense of the world–are revisited, updated, and made new.

Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad is a sharp, brilliant and tender revision of a story at the heart of our culture: the myths about Penelope and Odysseus. In Homer’s familiar version, The Odyssey, Penelope is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes to fight in the Trojan Wars, she manages to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son and, in the face of scandalous rumours, keep over a hundred suitors at bay. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters and sleeping with goddesses, he kills Penelope’s suitors and–curiously–twelve of her maids.

In Homer the hanging of the maids merits only a fleeting though poignant mention, but Atwood comments in her introduction that she has always been haunted by those deaths. The Penelopiad, she adds, begins with two questions: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? In the book, these subjects are explored by Penelope herself–telling the story from Hades — the Greek afterworld - in wry, sometimes acid tones. But Penelope’s maids also figure as a singing and dancing chorus (and chorus line), commenting on the action in poems, songs, an anthropology lecture and even a videotaped trial.

The Penelopiad does several dazzling things at once. First, it delves into a moment of casual brutality and reveals all that the act contains: a practice of sexual violence and gender prejudice our society has not outgrown. But it is also a daring interrogation of Homer’s poem, and its counter-narratives — which draw on mythic material not used by Homer - cleverly unbalance the original. This is the case throughout, from the unsettling questions that drive Penelope’s tale forward, to more comic doubts about some of The Odyssey’s most famous episodes. (“Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; no, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill.”)

In fact, The Penelopiad weaves and unweaves the texture of The Odyssey in several searching ways. The Odyssey was originally a set of songs, for example; the new version’s ballads and idylls complement and clash with the original. Thinking more about theme, the maids’ voices add a new and unsettling complex of emotions that is missing from Homer. The Penelopiad takes what was marginal and brings it to the centre, where one can see its full complexity.

The same goes for its heroine. Penelope is an important figure in our literary culture, but we have seldom heard her speak for herself. Her sometimes scathing comments in The Penelopiad (about her cousin, Helen of Troy, for example) make us think of Penelope differently – and the way she talks about the twenty-first century, which she observes from Hades, makes us see ourselves anew too.

Margaret Atwood is an astonishing storyteller, and The Penelopiad is, most of all, a haunting and deeply entertaining story. This book plumbs murder and memory, guilt and deceit, in a wise and passionate manner. At time hilarious and at times deeply thought-provoking, it is very much a Myth for our times.


From the Hardcover edition.

Reviews

National Bestseller

The Penelopiad is a brilliant tour de force that takes an aspect of The Odyssey and opens up new vistas… . Atwood takes Penelope’s braininess and puts her at the centre… . Odysseus’s 20-year absence leaves lots of room for development; this is just the kind of thing that a retelling of a myth should do… . [Atwood] turns a gruesome, barbaric episode into an ironic tragedy of double agents.”
National Post

“Two things are apparent when you begin reading The Penelopiad. First, this is a writer who is confidently at the height of her powers. And, second, she’s having fun.”
The Vancouver Sun

“Atwood’s putting Penelope in the starring role is a fine and fresh revisioning… . Somehow (it is a measure of her genius that one cannot quite say how), she makes us hear the voice of Penelope, reflecting in Hades on her life, as if it were the voice of the most interesting gossip you have ever had coffee with… . This is a wonderful book.”
The Globe and Mail

“Feels like a breath of fresh air blown in from the Mediterranean Sea… . The Penelopiad is Atwood in top form. The woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t lost her acerbic touch.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“What … emerge[s] is a startling commentary on the responsibility of power, and of how privilege can shade into complicity. The Penelopiad is anything but a woe-is-woman discourse… . adds Atwood’s sly, compassionate voice to the myth of Odysseus and Penelope and, in doing so, increases its already great depth.”
Calgary Herald

“In this exquisitely poised book, Atwood blends intimate humour with a finely tempered outrage at the terrible injustice of the maids, phrasing both in language as potent as a curse.”
Sunday Times (UK)

“Penelope flies with the help of the sardonic, dead-pan voice Atwood lends her, a tone — half Dorothy Parker, half Desperate housewives.”
The Independent (UK)

“‘Spry’ is a word that could almost have been invented to describe Margaret Atwood, who beadily and wittily retells the events surrounding The Odyssey through the voice of Penelope. Pragmatic, clever, domestic, mournful, Penelope is a perfect Atwood heroine.”
The Spectator (UK)

“Alter[s] one’s point of view toward [the story], imbuing it with a modern sensibility yet revealing some eternal truths about men, women, and the issue of power, including the power to shape a narrative… . Atwood shows with intelligence and wit just how complicated and unpretty love can be.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope’s straight talk about her husband, her girly laments about the ferocious competition of Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood’s brilliance emerges in the skillful way she has woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Homer’s epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem… . A fascinating and rather attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over.”
Chicago Tribune

“Atwood paints a shrewdly insightful picture of what life in those days might actually have been like… . By turns slyly funny and fiercely indignant, Ms. Atwood’s imaginative, ingeniously-constructed ‘deconstruction’ of the old tale reveals it in a new–and refreshingly different–light.”
The Washington Times

“Atwood’s 17th work of fiction is a gem…flaunts an acid wit and a generous dose of lyricism…In Atwood’s imagination, Penelope and her handmaids are remarkably complex: They are simultaneously ancient and modern, lighthearted and grief-stricken, disenfranchised and powerful.”
Baltimore Sun


From the Hardcover edition.