Friday, 15 May 2009

The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)

--The blurb--
"For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, maintaining a kingdom while her husband was off fighting the Trojan war was not a simple business. Already aggrieved that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep over a hundred lustful, greedy and bloodthirsty suitors at bay… And then, when Odysseus finally returns and slaughters the murderous suitors, he brutally hangs Penelope's twelve beloved maids. What were his motives? And what was Penelope really up to? Critically acclaimed when it was first published as part of Canongate's Myth series, and following a very successful adaptation by the RSC, this new edition of The Penelopiad sees Margaret Atwood give Penelope a modern and witty voice to tell her side of the story, and set the record straight for good."
from www.amazon.co.uk; book also available as part of the Myths Boxset along with works by Jeanette Winterson and Karen Armstrong, with an introduction by Philip Pullman

--The review--
Bringing Classics into the public eye can be a tricky business. Putting aside the fact that when you say 'classics' many think you are referring to literary classics such as Austen and Dickens (rather than to ancient writers who relied heavily on chills, spills and general filth), people often only know about things like the Oedipus complex because of Freud and others, ancient plays are now rarely performed despite several decent translations being available, and given the original languages in which these works were written, people often think 'Latin? Greek? No way' and promptly make off to another part of the bookshop.

This is why the Myths series is what you might call A Good Thing - it carries on the previously encouraging work of poets like Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley by bringing classical legends to the masses in a language that doesn't seem quite as offputting as Ancient Greek. Atwood is no stranger to presenting the stories of women who defect from the norm, so was arguably well-placed to present the story of Penelope, the long-suffering wife of the wayward Odysseus. Speaking from the kingdom of the dead, Penelope wanders fields of asphodel while recounting her husband's time away. The characters were all well-drawn and in many cases made to seem more real and human than in Homer's original (this is particularly true of the maids).

Overall the novella is highly representative of Atwood's general standard of work, although chapter 22 was a little weak and I was just waiting for Penelope to smack Odysseus over the head with a frying pan (or at least a kitchen implement of some sort) and shout, "Where the hell have you been for the past 20 years, you ****ing *******?" (Sadly, it never happened.) However, the novella is short, makes for a light yet sophisticated read, and has easily digestible chapters, which augurs well for the accessibility of the rest of the Myths series.

*The full list of works available in the Myths series, of which The Penelopiad is a part, can be found here.

Other works by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood (due 2009)
Oryx & Crake (2003)
The Blind Assassin (2000)
Alias Grace (1996)
The Robber Bride (1993)
Cat's Eye (1988)
The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Bodily Harm (1981)
Life Before Man (1979)
Lady Oracle (1976)
Surfacing (1972)
The Edible Woman (1969)

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