Written primarily in the first person from Penelope’s perspective, this book is by turns a brutally honest portrait of a woman-child given into an arranged marriage and a play performed by her maids. The chapters are short, and every third or fourth is a lament or satirical commentary offered from the maids’ perspective as if the twelve were collectively one. (For non-fiction readers, think a break-narrative chapter.) The majority of the novel spins on Penelope’s wheel as she offers what is essentially a contemporary media interview to the reader, one of those come-live-a-week-with-me-and-your-film-crew-can-video-everything-but-the-showers-and-dressing sorts of affairs. She speaks with candor, Penelope does, and so, it is perhaps not surprising that The Penelopiad was released to initial mixed reviews.
The book opens in Hades, as Penelope describes her current existence, complete with thoughts on life as it is today and the ways in which the living seek to commune with the dead. Consistent with Atwood’s previous writing, humour blends neatly with the darker aspects of the setting, and we are drawn into the world Penelope wishes us to see. Throughout the narrative – and there is little dialogue – Penelope guides us through her life: her condescension towards and jealousy of her cousin Helen of Troy, her nervousness on the day of her wedding as Odysseus wins her for his bride (including lurid details of how he cheated), the early days of her marriage and becoming mistress of Ithaca, and the long years of his absence during and after Helen’s ‘capture’ by Paris.
That seems to be what I was known for: being smart. That, and my weaving, and my devotion to my husband, and my discretion.
Penelope delivers self-deprecation with the same aplomb as she delivers flagons of wine to the thirsty suitors, only a portion of the yarn Atwood weaves with similar dexterity to our heroine as she accomplishes her tapestry. With that same adroitness, Atwood unravels a good bit of the finer fabrication surrounding Penelope’s long suffering devotion in Odysseus’ absence, just as his wife nightly unwove her weaving with the help of her maids. Offering the reader a coarser, more plausible version of events is the meat of The The Penelopiad, even as the finished tale is less romantic in its polish.
Often bitter, sometimes self-pitying, Penelope is real. At the beginning of this review, I remarked on Atwood’s trademark feminism. Yes, that style appears in The Penelopiad, and it rankled some readers as evidenced by early reviews. However, we should consider the facts. At most, Penelope was fifteen when given into marriage to Odysseus, a man at least twice her age and not considered the best of matches for a princess. She was clever, and being so in almost any age other than the present (and we can argue that one, too) could mean terrible heartache for a woman. Atwood is careful to present Penelope’s early life with Odysseus as one that included more than pleasant sexual and romantic interactions as well as a certain likeness of mind between the two of them. She was not necessarily unhappy in her marriage other than allowing her cousin Helen to bespoil what happiness seeded itself naturally before it took full root and blossomed.
What do I mean when I say Penelope is real? I mean that Atwood presents a balanced picture of a woman who does not like all aspects of her life, rues a fair portion of them, is bartered like chattel, lives by her wits to protect her husband’s kingdom, and suffers great guilt at the turn of her son and the killing of her conspirators when all is said and done. She is not the overblown heroine of typical mythology, and that perhaps is what damns The Penelopiad in some eyes. Not mine.
I highly recommend The Penelopiad to Homer aficionados, Atwood readers, and Penelope enthusiasts alike. This novel is well written, fun, and a worthy tribute to an often secondary character in Greek mythology. I, for one, shall be reading more of Canongate’s myth series as soon as time allows.