Ask readers for some adjectives to describe the fiction of Margaret Atwood and most would submit "intense, cerebral, futuristic, feminist," or just plain "weird." Only the most astute would add "funny" to the list. But with The Penelopiad
--Atwood's fictional autobiography of the mythic Greek character Penelope, devoted wife of Odysseus and vessel of considerable intrigue in Homer's towering Odyssey
--Atwood does the improbable. She resurrects a shadowy literary figure and charms the pants off of us while offering keen analysis (however subjective) of Penelope's motivations. And she makes us chuckle. Coming on the heels of the eye-glazer that was Oryx and Crake
, that's something. Atwood fans are well advised to explore this most unusual work.
In The Penelopiad, Atwood gives us a Penelope in her own words, spoken from beyond the grave. A second narrative stream comes from 12 of Penelope's maids who were slaughtered by our heroine's long-thought-dead-but-really-just-wayward husband. The maids weren't the only ones to feel Odysseus's wrath. A dogged pack of would-be suitors hoping to cash in on Penelope's wealth and status also perish in an orgy of violence triggered by Odysseus's surprise return to ancient Ithaca 20 years after he left to fight the Trojan War, a tale that might sound confusing but not in Atwood's telling. Yet what drives The Penelopiad isn't so much the yarn itself but Atwood/Penelope's dryly delivered insights into the wider human condition vis-à-vis her infamous cousin Helen of Troy, her odious mother-in-law Anticleia, and her brooding (read, quintessentially teenaged) son, Telemachus: "By 'the women,' he meant me. How could [Telemachus] refer to his own mother as 'the women'? What could I do but burst into tears? I then made the Is-this-all-the-thanks-I-get, you-have-no-idea-what-I've-been-through-for-your-sake... I-might-as-well-kill-myself speech. But I'm afraid he'd heard it before, and showed by his folded arms and rolled-up eyes that he was irritated by it, and was waiting for me to finish." Sound familiar? Many such choice nuggets are sprinkled throughout this slender book and while readers may not walk away from The Penelopiad with a richer understanding of Greek mythology (despite Atwood/Penelope's frequent attempts to correct rumors and historical inconsistencies), they will depart with a wry smile. --Kim Hughes
--This text refers to an alternate
From Publishers Weekly
Drawing on a range of sources, in addition to The Odyssey, Atwood scripts the narrative of Penelope, the faithful and devoted wife of Odysseus and her 12 maids, who were killed upon the master's return. Atwood proposes striking interpretations of her characters that challenge the patriarchal nature of Greek mythology. The chapters transition between the firsthand account of Penelope and the chorus of maids as listeners are taken from Penelope's early life to her afterlife. Laural Merlington charmingly delivers the witty and perceptive Penelope with realistic inflection and emphasis. Some of her vocal caricatures seem over the top, but most voices maintain a resemblance to our perceptions of these mythic people. The maids are presented as a saddened chorus by a cloning of Merlington's voice. These dark figures speak straightforwardly in their accusations of Penelope and Odysseus, while, at other times, they make use of rhyming. This format works well, though sometimes the cadence and rhyming scheme are off beat. This benefits the production by creating an eerie resonance and haunting demeanor that enhances this engaging tale.
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