by Margaret Atwood
2005 • 224 pages • Canongate
Margaret Atwood, especially in her later years, has a very specific and peculiar gift as a writer. Reading her prose, you hear not only the voice of a fully developed character, but Atwood’s as well. I’m tempted to say that her female protagonists have some similarities, but I haven’t read enough of her bibliography to feel comfortable saying that. All I can say is that Penelope and Offred are two different women related by a common mother. Atwood’s voice never intrudes, but you would never confuse her books for anyone else’s.
The Penelopiad is exactly what you think it is: a retelling of The Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. It’s the second installment in the Canongate Myth Series, which retells ancient myths. (Baba Yaga Laid an Egg and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ are other installments in the series.) Dead and a little befuddled, Penelope narrates her whole life story from the afterlife, occasionally meeting other shades and reflecting on the benefits of being dead. Her voice is light, deceptively strong, and witty, even as Penelope occasionally berates her past self for stupidity. And her clear-eyed love for Odysseus hits all the right notes: she knows exactly what kind of man he is, but they both love telling each other stories so much that they can’t ever really part from each other. It’s darling.
But, unfortunately, I never quite engaged with Penelope. Part of it, I think, was her love-hate relationship with Helen of Troy, her only close female relative, and her lack of a proper relationship with her naiad mother. Having slaked my thirst for feminist retellings on the mediocre but sister-focused Frozen and Maleficent as of late, Penelope’s isolation—necessitated by the plot of The Odyssey—didn’t grab me. (Atwood herself says that The Penelopiad isn’t feminist, which probably accounts for my dim enjoyment of it.) The Penelopiad also tells the story of Penelope’s murdered maids, but the delicate, strange relationship between the two, of mistress and servant, of master and slave, of co-coinspirators, is never fully examined.
And that’s frustrating, because what’s interesting isn’t Penelope’s sad-eyed and sharp-witted retelling of her own life, but the dissonance of Penelope’s patronizing fondness for her maids and the reality of their lives. Penelope’s chapters alternate between theatrical performances by the maids, from court drama to sea shanties to anthropological lectures. After Penelope reflects on her royal upbringing, the maids sing of their burdened mothers and unloved childhoods. They are juxtaposed this way to highlight the disparity between Penelope’s privilege and their lack of it, but, frustratingly, the text itself never does anything with it. The closest it gets is Penelope feeling sad—but not sad enough—that the girls she’s sent to seduce the suitors to collect information and gain some time are often raped by the suitors.
The maids’ songs and performances are ferocious and sharp, highlighting the sisterhood—one born of their common oppression—they share that Penelope, even when playing at spymaster, lacks. On stage, it must have been electrifying. In 2007, a stage show, featuring a script by Atwood, was staged in Ottawa, and has been performed in other places since to positive reviews. Sharing the same space on a stage—and having the maids play all the other roles as they help Penelope tell her story—allows for more interaction between Penelope and the maids and a more nuanced portrait of their relationship.
Is The Penelopiad better suited to stage? After all, Atwood wrote the script, and actually seeing all thirteen of these women instead of Penelope mentioning the maids in an airy, patronizing way makes the characters equal in the narrative in a way that they aren’t in their reality. Without having seen it, I, of course, can’t say, but I would very tempted to see the next production of it that I can feasibly reach and compare the two. I’ve had too much of isolated women who don’t like other women; I simply need something else in my diet.
(I should also point out that, because of the film Troy, Odysseus is always Sean Bean to me. I highly recommend this mental casting choice.)
I rented this book from the public library.