Deft, sly and playful reworking of the Odyssey story – from the woman’s POV
This is a sharp and acerbic story, examining what it might be like to be the ‘patient woman who weaves and waits for her husband to return from derring-do and being heroic’
Atwood wears her learning and her feminism lightly, but the sharp examination of what it might have been like to have been female in Ancient Greece, just prior to the Trojan wars, is nevertheless pointed and stark.
Penelope, Odysseus’ ‘patient wife’ is stuck in Ithaca whilst he roisters about for years, being a hero. Atwood cuts the myths about the Sirens and Circe down to human size, slyly suggesting Odysseus and his men have just bigged up some prolonged stays in brothels.
Penelope tells her story from the Underworld, occasionally casting a jaundiced eye on the 21st century. She looks back at her girlhood and marriage to Odysseus, what it was like to be a minor princess and political pawn. There’s a fairly large cast of Classical gods and heroes, all given the Atwood treatment – for example, Penelope’s mother, a Naiad, is predictably a little short on maternal feelings:
she preferred swimming about to the care of small children…..there she sat on her throne….a small puddle gathering at her feet
Helen of ship launching fame (Penelope’s cousin) is vapid and self obsessed.
The story is told with dry wit by Penelope herself, and also is commented on and burlesqued by her 12 maids (who were all savagely hung by Odysseus’ son Telemachus) – this is no spoiler, its all in the Odyssey, and anyway Penelope alludes to the end of the story at the start.
This isn’t an Atwood with the weight of The Blind Assassin, or Alias Grace, but very present underneath the light touch humour and playful illusion, the laying bare of the results of patriarchy are as uncompromising as ever