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Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

June 25, 2010
Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad

The Penelopiad bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

This is the second time I have read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. Much as I enjoyed it the first time around, I probably wouldn’t have read it again if it hadn’t been scheduled for one of my online bookgroups. However, given that scheduling and the fact that I had recently listened to Simon Armitage’s dramatisation of The odyssey, I didn’t mind reading it again – and it is short! My rereading though ended up being a little disjointed as I was trying to finish off a number of competing contracts at the time as well as prepare for a ten-day trip to our warm Top End. This review may be similarly disjointed!

The book is part of Canongate’s Myths series in which recognised writers were asked to retell well-known myths. At the time of publication, Atwood said that she tried a number of myths and had nearly given up when she suddenly recollected the story of Penelope and her hanged maids – and her childhood reaction to it. The result is a rather fresh – and cheeky – look at the story told through Penelope’s and the hanged maids’ eyes, from, not surprisingly, a feminist (or at least female) perspective.

The story is told through a large number of short chapters in Penelope’s voice, and these are interspersed with commentary from the hanged maids, emulating, appropriately enough, the idea of a Greek chorus. The way Atwood uses it, the chorus provides a satiric perspective on Penelope’s view of the story. The story is told in flashback, with the narrators all speaking from Hades, where they now reside. It is not a standard revisionist feminist treatise that simplifies the world to one of gender power discrepancies (even though that is what underlies it all). We get to “feel” what it might have been like to have lived then. Atwood’s characters are “real” and operate in a complex world where game-playing and manipulation are de rigueur if you are going to survive.

In Homer, Penelope is presented as “the quintessential faithful wife” (Atwood’s introduction) who brings up their son and cleverly fends off suitors while waiting patiently for Odysseus’ return. When he returns, he kills the suitors and twelve of Penelope’s maids. Atwood, again in her introduction, says that in choosing to tell the story through Penelope and the maids she wanted to focus on “what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really doing?”. Her Penelope is something rather more than the constant wife of The odyssey. She, the part daughter of a watery Naiad, is a slippery character to pin down. She is highly jealous of her beautiful cousin Helen (she of Troy fame) and she is capable of making her own power plays. She is of high birth, contrasting her with the twelve maids who, by their own admission “were born to the wrong parents. Poor parents, slave parents, peasant parents, and serf parents…”.

What I enjoyed most about this book – besides the story Atwood tells – is its sly humour. It is genuinely funny, albeit in a dark or sometimes gruesome way. Much of the humour arises out of Penelope’s playing with the truth. In fact the book plays continually with the idea of “stories”. In the first chapter, Penelope says:

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself. I’ve had to work myself up to it; it’s a low art, tale-telling … So, I’ll spin a little thread of my own.

A little further on in the book, she says, when reporting one of the prevailing stories about her, that “there’s some [my emphasis] truth to this story”. And so, as we read we need to remember that she too is telling us a story, and that there’s no guarantee that her story is any more “true” than another’s. This idea is reinforced by the fact that the maids comment on what Penelope tells us. Their and Penelope’s perspectives are not always the same. That is, their truths are different. This notion of stories versus stories is made even more clear in the chapter titled “Waiting” in which Penelope recites all the opposing stories and rumours about what Odysseus was doing/what was happening to him during the 10 years of his return. Reader beware, I say. In fact, at one point in the book where Penelope questions whether the “maids were making some of this up”, I wrote in the margin “Where is the truth”? I love the way Atwood plays with myth-making in a book about a myth – and, in doing so, also calls into question her own storytelling. Very postmodern!

I won’t go on. It’s a little uneven, with the maids’ story in particular being not quite as well integrated as it perhaps could. And yet, I’d recommend it, if you haven’t already read it. It’s clever, funny and compassionate – but its compassion is not a naive one. Rather, it has wide open eyes and knows that nothing is ever as simple as it looks – particularly when you find yourself in a situation where there is imbalance of power. Games will be played – and the powerless, such as women and particularly poor maids, will usually lose. And this, in the end, is Atwood’s (somewhat heavy-handed) point. As Penelope says in her last chapter:

Even with my limited access I can see that the world is just as dangerous as it was in my day, except that the misery and suffering are on a much wider scale. As for human nature, it’s as tawdry as ever.

Margaret Atwood
The Penelopiad
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2005
199pp.
ISBN: 9781920885953
NB: Cover image used above is from the new 2007 edition.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2010 8:45 pm

    I haven’t read any Atwood yet (I know, I know..) but you have certainly convinced me that this is worth giving a try.

    • June 25, 2010 9:21 pm

      Just as well you said “I know, I know”, otherwise I would have waggled my finger at you. This would not be her most representative one but you have to start somewhere – don’t you!! LOL.

  2. June 25, 2010 10:29 pm

    You put me to shame with your diligence, Sue: I haven’t even read it once! But you have persuaded me that I ought to, plus I’m also grateful to you for having reminded me of Atwood – whose work I’ve been overlooking for years (I loved her early novels, following her with huge enthusiasm, but had rather gone off her since mid-90s. Did she change or did I? Don’t answer that, pls :-)!).
    I imagine living nextdoor to the West’s most mythopoeic land must have considerable effect on Canadians, notably their writers, so MA’s clearly risen to the challenge in this instance.
    I love myths, legends, ‘fairy tales’, so shall definitely be looking out for this one: merci, et bon weekend.

    • June 25, 2010 11:31 pm

      I won’t but I will say that I haven’t read her last two big novels. Not counting this one, the last of hers that I’ve read is The blind assassin (2000) which I thought was wonderful.

      LOL re Canada and its proximity to “the world’s most mythopoeic land”.

      Et, bon weekend à toi, aussi. (Is that correct?)

  3. June 26, 2010 12:07 am

    May I borrow this from you sometime? I remember wanting to read it when you were delving into it the first time around! Also, is that a different cover to the one you have?

    • June 26, 2010 12:27 am

      Yes, you may – and yes it is (as I sort of referred to at the end of the post!). In fact, as I was writing it I wondered if you might like to read it.

      • June 27, 2010 12:11 am

        Fiddlesticks, I meant to get this from you today! (Also, I sent you a message on facebook – gmail isn’t letting me send any emails, which is mighty frustrating….)

  4. June 26, 2010 1:11 am

    I enjoyed this book but then I have yet to meet an Atwood book I didn’t like. I agree with you though, the maids’ story isn’t as integrated as it could have been but overall it’s an enjoyable and thought-provoking.

  5. June 26, 2010 3:53 am

    “The Penelopiad” sounds like a book that might be fun to read. I remember reading and liking some of Atwood’s early work, but haven’t kept up with her for a long time. Nice to have a relatively short book to re-aquaint myself with this author.

  6. June 26, 2010 10:21 am

    Stef: have you read her last two novels, Oryx and Crake and The year of the flood? I have the former but haven’t read it yet. It got some mixed reviews.

    Tony: What was the last of hers that you read? I liked most of “middle period” (looking at it from today) books. I’ve read 7 of her novels, and I particularly liked The handmaid’s tale, Alias Grace and The blind assassin.

  7. June 26, 2010 3:16 pm

    I read The Year of the Flood earlier this year. It’s set in the same distopian world as Oryx and Crake, so I reread that before I tackled the latest. Great stuff, very enjoyable. Atwood has a wicked sense of humour. I must admit I’ve read just about all of her books, though not the Penelopiad. The Handmaid’s Tale is probably my favourite of hers.

    • June 26, 2010 3:32 pm

      Oh yes, I agree she does have a wicked sense of humour – and it’s something that’s common across many of my favourite women writers (like Austen and Jolley). The handmaid’s tale is great – unforgettable, isn’t it? I know it’s gloomy, but I do rather “like” dystopian novels!

  8. Sarah permalink
    June 26, 2010 4:33 pm

    I find Atwood a rather uneven writer, perhaps because her output is so prolific, but really enjoyed this. I agree cheeky is the word!

    • June 26, 2010 11:55 pm

      Interesting Sarah…without agreeing or disagreeing (because I’ve read/heard many opinions over time), I’ll ask what makes you say you find her uneven.

  9. June 27, 2010 7:06 am

    The humour is wonderful, isn’t it? Very Atwood.

    You’ve made me want to read this again. I don’t think I paid enough attention to stories as a theme the first time around, though that’s normally something that really resonates with me.

    • June 27, 2010 11:25 am

      Thanks for popping by Nymeth. To be honest, I can’t recollect whether I noticed that aspect so much the first time around either. Reading a good/interesting book more than once usually yields additional pleasures doesn’t it? But it’s always a tradeoff against reading something new – so I don’t do it a lot although in recent months I’ve been discovering that I do it way more than I thought I did!

  10. June 27, 2010 3:08 pm

    Hannah: Silly you is all I can say. But, it will be here next time you pop in.

  11. July 2, 2010 2:42 am

    A nice review. I like how you brought out the flaws while still recommending it, I may look at this one and it’s nice to have those correctives up front.

    I must say by the way, you’re a blogging machine. I printed this off just the other day to read, came back to comment and there’s another five or so posts ahead of it! I’m slightly awed.

    • July 2, 2010 9:07 am

      Glad you liked the review Max. Will be interested in your take, if you decide to read it.

      As for being a blogging machine, I’m a bit erratic. I suspect I fall somewhere in the middle of a blogger frequency curve. Most months, like June, I write 13-15 posts, but it just so happened that I was away for ten days in the middle of June and a few interesting things happened at the end of the month, hence a sudden burst.

  12. August 10, 2010 11:02 pm

    I really loved this book, but then I love all of her books (strangely though, with the exception of The Robber Bride). I really loved the perspective of the hanged maids and the different ways in which they provide it. It was a really clever narrative technique ( i think thats what you could call it) and the story was so much better for it. I loved Penelope though and I loved the story.

    • August 10, 2010 11:34 pm

      I’ve loved all of hers that I’ve read which is a goodly proportion, though I haven’t read the last tow. Must say The robber bride is my least favourite of those I’ve read. I loved this one too – obviously!

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