“Now that I am dead, I know everything.”
My first foray into Atwood (planned as part of Advent with Atwood) was the simplest of hers that I own – a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view. Atwood imagines Penelope in the Underworld thousands of years later (in our modern day), telling the story of her life, with interjections from a Greek tragedy-style chorus. Penelope airs her thoughts on her cousin Helen, the gods’ fickle and mischievous interventions in human life, and sets us straight on some parts of her story. It’s not a long novel, with barely 200 small pages of largish print.
While there were certain aspects of the myth that I had forgotten (Odysseus’ long stay with Calypso being one of them) and others that I did not know as they were a little gruesome for the children’s book of Greek myths I read as a child (the hanging of the twelve young maids), the story was mostly familiar to me. Atwood throws in asides and remarks which reference other myths or characters from the myths, such as Clytemnestra, which make the reader quite smug with recognising them!
Atwood’s characterisation of both Penelope and Odysseus is consistent with my memory of the myth – both wily, fairly quiet, greatly in love and never forgetting a grudge. Penelope’s father is set up as a buffoon and Eurycleia as a meddling but loving old crony. A suspenseful ending was always going to be prohibited by the widespread knowledge of the story, but the dread and fear as the suitors eat up more and more of Penelope’s resources is real.
Somehow there’s not much to say about this. It’s faithful to the original although clever and witty in its own capacity; the characters started by Homer are consistently and congruously transferred, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I read the first hundred pages without interruption; it is perhaps the fact that I was returning to it rather than already being engrossed that made me feel the second half was weaker. In any case, the whole thing is a very quick read as it is both short and captivating.