Posted in book reviews

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making.

In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.

In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.

Terrible. Utterly terrible.

Come read The Penelopiad the book that tells Penelope’s side of the story. One would then assume that this means that the novel aims to give Penelope agency as she is using her own voice to tell her side of the story. And when I say tell, I mean it.

To state the obvious (much like how Penelope constantly does), this is a novella, but it fails to feel like one. Instead, it reads like a Wikipedia page. Except, that’s more exciting. Atwood failed to construct Penelope as a nuanced narrator, instead she had her state the freaking obvious constantly. For example, Penelope would mention that she was to be in an arranged marriage. And by this she means a marriage arranged for a specific reason, a marriage chosen for her, not arranged as in flower arrangements! ahaha dumbass reader! bet that caught you out! how lucky you’ve got the clever Penelope to tell you otherwise, hmmmm?

Let’s not get started on how this book also markets that it will give the maids a voice to tell their sides of the story and events….nope….let’s not get in to that one….because it doesn’t….they have like 20 pages of page time and practically repeat themselves (yes, they’re lumped in to a group and I think we know the names of 2 of them….total agency right)….

And I don’t know what Atwood aimed to do with Penelope but she used Penelope’s narrative voice to:
a) have Penelope repeatedly tell the reader how smart she was, despite all her actions and inner-thoughts proving other wise (see back to my earlier point: where Penelope over-states and explains the simplest of things)
: this could’ve been really interesting, if it was Atwood showing how Penelope put up a front but then show her vulnerabilities. While it touched upon how Penelope’s story later got twisted, THIS narrative failed to actually explore these themes. Once again, all show and not tell. I mean I know Penelope is narrating from the underworld but my good lord…

b) Shit on the other female characters. The girl-on-girl hate with Helen was your typical YA trope of blonde cheerleader vs ‘ugly duckling’ girl. Blonde cheerleader is stupid and superficial while the ‘ugly duckling’ girl is smart and clearly superior. Considering that this book seemed to set out to deconstruct the typical patriarchal canon Atwood sure liked to uphold a lot of it’s sexism…and it wasn’t in a subversive way either…

: like when Penelope, at the end of the novel, despite looking back on the story of the maids etc….still thought it was appropriate to tell them to leave Odysseus alone because he had suffered enough…Feminism? don’t know her.

Penelope was such a weakly written character. I was excited to dive in to the complexities and see a new take on her backstory, adding layers that the myths typically leave out / up to interpretation. But no. I just don’t get Penelope. I’d say she wasn’t written consistently but that would be a lie…she was written in a way that constantly got on my nerves…

And I’m so irritated by that because I was so happy to pick up a book that gave agency to a female voice that otherwise isn’t usually seen. And this doesn’t mean I was expecting Penelope to be an all around good character, the pinnacle of feminism, I just expected her to have complexities, to be multi-faceted…instead the way she was written was just so eh…

God…I really could go on.

The writing was just inconsistent AF. One minute we are being told Telemachus and Penelope really did not get along, they fought, he would kill her if he thought he could get away with it, he was nothing but a selfish brat….and then the next there’s almost a loving (lol) moment between the two where he lies to her to spare her feelings?? AND I AM ANNOYED. Because ONCE AGAIN!! this could’ve had potential.

Like with many of the characters:
and as discussing, Telemachus,

we could’ve explored the moral ambiguity of the characters!! their complexities!! their motivations!! FEELINGS!! but nah. Penelope will add in a couple throw away lines about his displeasure and that will be it.

This story wasn’t built, there weren’t any layers, as the blurb says, it was quite literally TOLD. And through this ‘recap’ of sorts, there was no emotion. None. It was so sterile and uninspiring.

I really could go on about all the things I found wrong in this book, but I’ll sum it up:

– The novella clearly didn’t know what point it wanted to make. It tried to tackle multiple themes and because of that it never fully developed one.

– It read like it wasn’t that well researched.

– The characterisations and the structure was not well developed or cohesive.

Ultimately, I did not get on with the writing style at all and found it to be extremely weak and lacking in any sort of depth.

One star.



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