Friday, May 9, 2008
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
I really don't think I'll be able do this one justice. I really can't recommend it highly enough. But I'll give it a try. This is Atwood's contribution to the Canongate Myth Series. For those of you who may not have heard of this series, the concept is simple -- contemporary authors remake famous myths. I read and reviewed another book from this series, Dream Angus, by Alexander McCall Smith which I reviewed here. This book is Atwood's interpretation or re-interpretation of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus.
She describes it like this in the introduction, "But Homer's Odyssey is not the only version of the story. Mythic material was originally oral, and also local -- a myth would be told one way in one place and quite differently in another. I have drawn on material other than The Odyssey, especially for the details of Penelope's parentage, her early life and marriage, and the scandalous rumours circulating about her. I've chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story told in the Odyssey doesn't hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I've always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself."
Atwood is such a great writer, that she even makes the introduction interesting and entertaining. Then the very first line of the book hooks you and you're suddenly ensconced in Penelope's world. "Now that I'm dead I know everything." Thus Penelope begins telling her story from Purgatory where she is still trying to piece together the puzzle that was her life. I love that Atwood gives us complete access to Penelope's thoughts, fears, and desires. She begins with her somewhat troubled childhood and tells us the story of her life both before and after her marriage. The chapters alternate between Penelope's story and the Chorus of the hanged maids. Atwood brings everything into sharp focus with vivid description and beautiful language.
"I can't make myself understood, not in your world, the world of bodies, of tongue and fingers; and most of the time I have no listeners, not on your side of the river. Those of you who may catch the odd whisper, the odd squeak, so easily mistake my words for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams (pg. 4)."
I don't know that I have the answers to the questions that Atwood poses in the introduction, but it doesn't really matter, either. This is a multi-faceted story with rich characters, especially Penelope, that can't be easily pinned down. It would take someone much better qualified than me to actually do this one justice in a review. But, just take my word for it -- this book is a treat -- plain and simple.
This is my last book for the Once Upon a Time II Challenge except for The Midsummer Night's Dream, which I'll read on June 20. I have read the introduction and other supplementary material in the edition I have in anticipation of this one, which I'm excited about. I have thoroughly enjoyed this reading challenge and have liked all the books that I've read. Two of the books that I read were by authors that I hadn't read before -- Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Transformations by Anne Sexton. Neither of these were books that I would have picked up before this. This is actually the first time that I've successfully completed a challenge. But, I think that the fact that I've discovered new authors and a whole new genre of books that I enjoy is the best part of it all. Thanks, Carl!!