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!!


Ana S. said...

Congratulations on finishing the challenge :) I read The Penelopiad for it last year and I also really enjoyed it. I must read more Atwood!

Jill said...

Surprise, surprise. I really liked this one too. =)

I hope the new job is going well for you!

Take care! Happy Mother's Day!

Anonymous said...

It's a marvelous book isn't it? I think Atwood is one of the best living writers if not the best. She really creates an interesting alternative story for Penelope and makes her struggle as epic and important as Odysseus'

Andi said...

I've had my eye on this one for a long time, but I've heard a mixed bag of reviews about it. I'm glad you enjoyed it so. I'm going to try extra hard to BookMooch it!

Gentle Reader said...

This has been on my list for awhile. Thanks for the review, I'm definitely going to read it now!

Lisa said...

nymeth, it's a perfect book for this challenge, don't you think? This is only the third book by Atwood that I've read, and I have loved every one of them. I have several more waiting at home.

jill, it really is quite funny how closely our reading tastes run. I think there has only been one book (I can't remember what now) that we seemed to have a different of opinion on. Happy Mother's Day to you!!

stephanie, I tend to agree that she is absolutely one of the best around. I love her writing style. She did such a great job with this one -- giving Penelope and the hanged maids a voice.

andi, I hadn't read anything else about this book before I read it. I'd be interested to hear what others had to say about it. I really couldn't find anything to complain about with this one.

gentle reader, you definitely need to try to get your hands on a copy of this one.

SFP said...

I LOVED The Penelopiad. Your review makes me want to reread.

Lisa said...

sfp, this is one I'll definitely be rereading.

Stephanie said...

I love Atwood! Sounds like this one is a must read for me!!

Great review!

Lisa said...

stephanie, absolutely! This is classic Atwood. I'm reading Wilderness Tips right now by Atwood, which is a collection of short stories. I'm really enjoying these, as well.

maggie moran said...

One more book and you will be done! :)

I'm doing the first of 5 contests for the autographed Mudbound books. Go here if you would like to play.

Carl V. Anderson said...

Congrats on finishing, or almost finishing, the challenge! You've definitely done what I hope everyone will do and that is discover new authors and new books that you end up really connecting with. The Penelopiad is on that has been on my list since last year's challenge as so many people have read and been impressed by it. I look forward to getting to it sometime in the future.

Lisa said...

carl, I definitely have put quite a few books on the tbr list because of this challenge. I hope you do get around to this one some time. It's well worth it. Thanks again for hosting the challenge and introducing me to some new (to me) authors.