The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

March 15, 2010 § 18 Comments

I wanted happy endings in those days, and happy endings are best achieved by keeping the right doors locked and going to sleep during the rampages.

This is the fourth book in the Canongate Myths Series that I’ve read, and incidentally, my first Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad is the retelling of the myth of Penelope and Odysseus, with Penelope as our narrator. She tells us her story from the world of the dead. She is relating her story to us in our time, modern day; her story that took place those thousands of years ago. She tries to tell us, what really happened during the years when Odysseus was not around? Why did he hang the twelve maids when he got back? What exactly was she thinking?

I didn’t know anything about this myth when I started this book. I only vaguely knew the names of Penelope and Odysseus, and I had heard of a bit more the name of Penelope’s cousin, the Helen of Troy. But right at the beginning of the book, Atwood puts people like me at ease, with a very brief introduction of what the original myth might have been like, and she also tells us exactly what she aims to do with her own retelling of the myth.

Atwood tells us that she focuses on two questions:

What led to the hanging of the maids?

What was Penelope really up to?

Did the book really answer those questions? I don’t think so. Nor do I actually believe that there was supposed to be any concrete resolution at the end. The beauty of the books in the Myths Series, (so far that I’ve read) is that the journey of exploring the possibilities behind the myths is given the priority and emphasis. It’s the question of “What if this happened instead of that?” It’s about taking a story that we might have known and heard of for so long, and giving it a slight spin or twist, looking at it from a different perspective; almost like picking up a toy car that’s been sitting on the shelf all these years, and looking underneath it to see what it might have been hiding.

Atwood’s style in this book reminded me a little of Jeanette Winterson. And I’ve found Winterson’s work to be rather fascinating. So it was good to read another writer whose style I could kind of relate to and recognise. I’m not sure if Atwood’s other works are like this, so I’m really keen on trying The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’ve been told is a must-read.

Reading this book has also kind of convinced me to try Homer’s The Odyssey. Though I’m still a little intimidated by it. Has anyone read The Odyssey? What did you think of it?

So anyway, back to this book. It’s a good one, I think. It made me work a little in between chapters when I didn’t know if Penelope the narrator was talking about her story in the past, or of herself in the present. I thought the added dimension of Penelope in that world of the dead/spirits was interesting, not something I had expected when I started reading.

Rating: 4

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§ 18 Responses to The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

  • Aimee says:

    The Odyssey is wonderful – its just rollicking and classic adventure, and I found it easier to read than The Iliad, though I love that and recommend it as well…

    this book didn’t work for me…I found the chorus bits entirely contrived and the story really added nothing new..yet I LOVE The Handmaid’s Tale…so I can’t wait to see what you think of that one 🙂

    I think Atwood definitely has a bit of Winterson in her, but I also thnk she’s a bit of a chameleon – different in each work.

    • Michelle says:

      Funny, because I thought the chorus parts, though they did seem a little weird, were quite funny. I didn’t ‘look forward to them’, per se, but they did have a flavour to them that I rather enjoyed.

      I’ll trust you on The Odyssey. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read, but just was always intimidated by it. And before reading this book, I guess I just never had enough motivation. I’ll see if I can fit it in this year.

  • kiss a cloud says:

    Michelle, I’m thinking of reading both The Iliad and The Odyssey this year (if time permits, haha). Anyway, I liked The Penelopiad enough but felt like I would’ve appreciated it more if I read The Odyssey.

    • Michelle says:

      Oh! And I just thought I’d try to fit in The Odyssey this year as well! I’m really not sure if I can, with so many other things planned to happen in real life, but would be interesting if we both did. I imagine a good conversation.

  • Aarti says:

    I enjoyed the Penelopiad, though I didn’t remember much about the Odyssey, which I read in high school. I would really like to read the Iliad, though! This was my only Atwood as well- I am hoping to read the other book I have by her this year!

    • Michelle says:

      As Aimee mentioned in her comment, Atwood is different in each book. So it might be interesting to find out what other style she writes in. I quite enjoyed her style here.

  • mee says:

    I was really into Greek mythology since primary school to high school so I was quite familiar with the Odyssey though I never read the real book. I’ve watched Odyssey movies, and other adaptations of it too. Anyway I was a bit underwhelmed by the book because it didn’t introduce anything new to me. But the Penelopiad is my first Atwood too and I would love to try her other books as they sound very appealing to me! You should let me know if you want to read The Handmaid’s Tale. Maybe we could read together. But if not it’s okay too since we have planned reading lots of books together 🙂

  • Kristen M. says:

    I really like The Odyssey and my mom has suggested the Penelopiad to me but I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I haven’t read any Atwood either. But I think you would like The Odyssey because you will recognize so many of the parts of it that have become common cultural references in modern times.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks Kristen. I’m going to try and fit it in this year, The Odyssey I mean. And I always find it interesting when there are common cultural references today that date back to ancient times. Never fails to amaze me.

  • Nymeth says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed this! I did too, but it took The Handmaid’s Tale for me to truly fall in love with Atwood. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on that one.

  • Mel u says:

    The Odyssey is wonderful-so many stories-get the Robert Eagels Translations of this and the Iliad- I guess the maids were returned in that in that time a maid (a slave) was not allowed to have any kind of romance or relations with a man without permission of her owner-rape of a maid was not a crime on the maid but against her owner-

    I liked the chorus a lot also and I liked the change of narrative mode at the end-I want to read more works in this series-thanks for your very perceptive review-I also love her The Handmaid’s Tale and am mixed on her Cat’s Eye-I want to read her most recent two books next

  • JoV says:

    I came here wanting to tell you I’ll Read Penelopiad, now it looks like I need to read th “Odyssey”. 🙂

    I didn’t like “The Handmaid’s Tale” It’s a dystopia novel. so it’s depressing and disturbing, esp it is about women under oppression.

    • Michelle says:

      I actually really like dystopian novels. That’s why I’m looking forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Just that at this moment, I’m having trouble trying to get a hold of it from the library. It feels like everyone has conspired to read it at the same time.

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