I nearly got the the end of 2020 without reading any Atwood! I’m really not into mythology — but I’m ready to dabble when it comes to my favourite authors retelling myths. Unsurprisingly, Atwood does it brilliantly.
The Penelopiad is Penelope’s side of the story, in which she’s more than the staid, faithful, weeping wife of Odysseus, but a strategist and savvy business manager. Most enjoyably, Atwood’s Penelope — who narrates events from Hades in the present day — is also a delightfully forthright and sardonic wit, reminding me a lot of Aunt Lydia in The Testaments, in my view is one of Atwood’s finest comic creations.
In a typically Atwoodian move, the book also explores the story of other, even more overlooked women — the 12 ‘maids’, slaves who were raped by suitors (120 of whom come courting Penelope in Odysseus’s absence). On his return, after slaughtering the suitors, Odysseus mysteriously went on to hang the 12 maids.
A short read, it’s a very satisfying, dynamic mix of Penelope’s first-person accounts of the events themselves and her present day in Hades (being bothered by the suitors, sniping with her cousin Helen), with the ghosts of the 12 maids appearing as a chorus, laying down truth and revenge to Odysseus and the suitors with razor-sharp verse — from rap to sea shanty.
Towards the end, there’s even a scene in a present-day court room where all the principal characters collide and the judge acquits Odysseus of his crimes against the maids. A reminder, in case we needed it, that the patriarchy is alive and well, and that women’s stories will continue to be erased unless we fight each other’s corner. Vintage Atwood.