My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Atwood offers us a very intriguing telling of the Odyssey from two different points of view: Penelope and her twelve maids. These maids were executed at the end of the Odyssey. It gives a different and valid perspective that challenges one to look more closely at Homer’s epic and at similar instances in literature and life. Emily Wilson, in her new translation of the Odyssey, also commented on these maids and how they have been misinterpreted by male translators over the centuries, adding words that weren’t there in the original Greek and implying they were simply throwing themselves at the suitors and deserving of death. Atwood offers another, more active, perspective, for these maids and for Penelope. Penelope calls out blatant sexism but Atwood weaves a more complex tale, adding a class dimension as well. Atwood complicates Penelope too, with respect to her relationship with the maids and how the maids view her in the underworld. Attempts at justice for these maids feels like reading a newspaper article today. Atwood’s prophetic writing streak continues.
Atwood roots her story firmly in the Homeric tradition and mythology. I smiled at references I knew and learned several new ones, such as Odysseus possibly being the son of Sisyphus (p. 46). She nails some important facets of male vanity too, especially when Penelope says of Odysseus: “it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness” (p. 137).
I have to say I loved the reference to Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses. Penelope and Odysseus are just reacquainting themselves with each other and are telling each other stories. She says to him, “We’re not spring chickens any more,” to which he responds, “That which we are, we are” (p. 172). His words are a direct quote of Tennyson. Well-woven, Ms. Atwood!
Her story is somewhat similar to the burlesque translations of Homer that were popular up to the Victorian era. More often, those tended to be risqué just to be risqué, whereas Atwood has a definite set of points to make. But, at times, I felt her writing was a bit too much. Not in the content but in the “wink wink”, breaking the 4th wall, cutesy modern-day commentary. I might be somewhat influenced by having immediately just finished Madeline Miller’s excellent The Song of Achilles”, a retelling/revealing of the lives of Achilles and Patroclus. Miller told an amazing story without the pithy asides and snarky commentary.
I have to say that in the last 15 years or so, women have brought such fresh air, new ideas, and solid scholarship to Homer. Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are great additions to the list of translations (Alexander’s is the best translation I’ve read of Homer, ever, in my opinion). And now Atwood’s reimagining of the Odyssey and Miller’s take on the Iliad add to the corpus. Avail yourself of these wonderful works.