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Saturday 27 July 2013

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Continuing on the theme of the Canongate myths, Margaret Atwood took the myth of the Odyssey and told it instead from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s long-suffering, abandoned wife. In the Penelopiad, Penelope has already passed on and is reflecting on her life, and her legacy as the ultimate devoted wife.

I love The Odyssey, it is a story wrapped in adventure and excitement and Odysseus, of course, is the trickster hero who gets by on his wits rather than his strength or any particular power. In The Peneopiad, Atwood asks us to consider the wit of Penelope who fooled the suitors who threatened to unpick her kingdom and swallow her up into an unwanted marriage. Juxtaposed against Penelope’s story is the ‘chorus’ the twelve maids who were hanged by Telemachus for their disloyalty, accused of flirting with the suitors and slandering their masters. However, in typical Atwood fashion, there’s an interesting twist on that story.

The Penelopiad is a dryly humorous read which reflects on the thinness of the stories of the women from classical mythology, and it is not so surprising that Atwood, with her reputation for feminist stories, has taken this story on. It is well written, amusing, and I loved the use of poetry for the chorus of slave girls whose story, more so than Penelope’s, is lost in history. It gives it a real authenticity as though, perhaps, it had really be written by the Greeks.

Penelope’s character also comes across very strongly, Atwood really brings her to life. It could be tragic, and she could be spending eternity feeling sorry for herself, but yet somehow the character manages to be at once bitter, angry, jealous and disappointed whilst being strong and clever and certain, a character with a measure enough of her own trickery. She builds, here, a real human story. In the end it leaves you wondering who was the greater hero? The one who followed his wanderlust, who travelled the seas searching for adventures and wars and monsters and beasts, or the woman who stayed home and became mistress of her own domain, plagued only by an annoyance of men and a guilty conscience about her part in the deaths of the maids.

It would do the book an injustice if I didn’t spare a moment to reflect on the characters of the maids who, Atwood proposes, were the victims of their sex and lowly status. There is probably  more than an element of truth in that. Instead she shows us some girls who are loyal and feisty and who do their best with the life they were given, and which was cruelly taken away. We see them as women, with bodies that barely belong to them and whose role is that of accessory, sub-text, secondary character, plot device or somesuch other minor function but who in truth are as real as you or me. In a lesser hand there could be something purely judgemental or mawkish about it, but Atwood writes with such verve and life and vivacity that she brings those girls to life and makes them funny and vibrant and wonderful.

All in all a very enjoyable read. The Penelopiad receives a historically accurate 9 out of 10 Biis. And the last word, I leave to the maids....

Yoo hoo! Mr Nobody! Mr Nameless! Mr Master of Illusion! Mr Sleight of Hand, grandson of thieves and liars!

We’re here too, the ones without names. The other ones without names. The ones with shame stuck onto us by others. The ones pointed at, the ones fingered.

The chore girls, the bright-cheeked girls, the juicy gigglers, the cheeky young wigglers, the young bloodscrubbers.

Twelve of us. Twelve moon-shaped bums, twelve yummy mouths, twenty-four feather-pillow tits, and best of all, twenty-four twitching feet.

Remember us? Of course you do! We brought water for you to wash your hands, we bathed your feet, we rinsed your laundry, we oiled your shoulders, we laughed at your jokes, we ground your corn, we turned down your cosy bed.

You roped us in, you strung us up, you left us dangling like clothes on a line. What hijinks! What kicks! How virtuous you felt, how righteous, how purified now that you’d got rid of the plump young dirty dirt-girls inside your head!

You should have buried us properly. You should have poured wine over us. You should have prayed for our forgiveness.

Now you can’t get rid of us, wherever you go: in your life or your afterlife or any of your other lives...

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