The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

Title: The Penelopiad

Author: Margaret Atwood

Genre/Series: Greek Mythology, Retelling, Feminism

Blurb from Goodreads

For Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, running a kingdom while her husband is away fighting in the Trojan War is no simple matter. Already distressed that he had been lured away because of the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must also raise her wayward son, face scandalous rumours, and keep more than one hundred lustful, greedy, and bloodthirsty suitors at bay.

Margaret Atwood gives voice to Penelope, one of antiquity’s most infamous heroines, so that she can tell her story at last and set the record straight once and for all.

My Review

Eh? Is that it???? *scratches head* Did Atwood forget to actually tell a story because it sure as heck seems like that to me.

This felt too preachy to me which is a similar feeling I had when I read The Handmaid’s Tale. I swear Atwood does a lot of telling but never actually shows how her characters are feeling. I mean we as readers obviously get outraged because it’s clear to see the second class citizen that is the woman, and then there are the slaves and servant girls who are even more sinned again…

But where was the emotion? The empathy????

This was just another feminism by numbers retelling of an ancient story that didn’t really add any new depth to the existing material.

And for all the talk about how this was supposed to be a story to expose the wrongness of hanging the twelve maids, I never once felt connected to them because they were nameless automatons sharing this singular voice! This is poor as Greek mythology retellings go. And further proves to me that Atwood and I do not see eye to eye!

I think Atwood is neither dark nor witty in the two books I’ve read by her. Quite contrary, I would term her writing bland and painfully dry. Her wit isn’t even droll. Even if this is pegged as a psychological drama I do not see why it should be void of emotion.

Without emotion where is the humanity?

There is humanity even in the darkness and that subverted humanity and emotion is what is truly chilling about psychological dramas.

In my opinion Atwood is the type of writer that writes with an agenda; that of making her reader have to react the way she wants them to react. It’s very cold, clinical and absolutely leaves nothing up to the reader when it comes to interpreting the book for themselves.

I firmly ascribe to the belief that the relationship between the reader and the book is, and should be, a separate relationship between that of reader and writer. Once the writer has released their book into the world there should be many ways for various readers to interpret the work.

But Atwood doesn’t allow for this separation. She never lets go of her writing and instead is too controlling. Therefore the reader is not provided with the freedom to discern the greys within her characters for themselves. Everything is far too black and white.

And one can most certainly say that the emotion was not hidden under layers or was due to the restraint of a character that was striving to appear a certain way. Because there were many instances in the novel when Atwood was keen to tell us that Penelope had very strong feelings regarding other powerful women i.e. how she regarded both Helen and Clytemnestra in a black and white manner. But yet again, we were merely told about these feelings and emotions rather than Atwood fully describing them.

I think the biggest disappointment was how Atwood treated the story surrounding the rape and murder of Penelope’s most closest and trusted maids. This book was supposedly about giving the forgotten female characters of The Odyssey due recognition so one would have expected that their deaths would have been written with great emotional gravitas.

But there was nothing.

And added to that, frustratingly there was a distinct lack of anything coming from Penelope emotion-wise. Quite frankly, Penelope’s reaction was apathy at best which to me was illogical because the story was narrated to us by a deceased Penelope dwelling within the realms of the Underworld.

There may have been need for Penelope when in Odysseus’ presence to be restrained during the actual time of the hanging; acting in self preservation or similar.

However, there should have been more nuance of emotion coming from her in the present time. One cannot say that the passage of time would have erased those strong emotions because then what would her reasoning for narrating the story to us have been.

Overall, I just found that this book doesn’t sit well among the prevalence of modern day Homeric retellings. I have much greater fondness for Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Circe, Tóibín’s House of Names, Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, Haynes’ A Thousand Ships among others. These books brought the juxtaposition of old with modern language and delivered something fresh to the stories.

Atwood’s Penelopiad relied too much on reader knowledge of the Homeric epics for her work to truly stand alone.

I really did not enjoy The Penelopiad. I found it to be very poorly constructed with glaring inconsistencies and sadly underdeveloped characters that were merely pastiches rather than living, breathing, feeling, multi-layered human beings.


Other Works by Margaret Atwood I’ve Reviewed

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11 thoughts on “The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

  1. I had similar feelings when I read it too – I was just expecting more depth! (My background is in Classics/Greek and Roman Mythology, and I hadn’t even read Song of Achilles by that point!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that’s very interesting to hear! Because I’ve gotten into strong literary debates about the merits of this book (read it with a book group) and I’m glad to know I’m not alone in feeling it lacklustre. Thanks Hanah!! :)))

      Liked by 1 person

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