When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.
Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.
It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.
Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.
Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.
But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.
Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.
There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.
Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.