The Penelopiad

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I wrote a series about my US trip with many references to Homer’s Odyssey, called the Windiad. The story of Odysseus is from the perspective of Odysseus. Penelope, his wife, is largely presented as a symbolic figure of a long-suffering and faithful wife.

The Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, wrote a sardonic novel from Penelope’s perspective, called The Penelopiad. She was struck by the off-hand reference to Penelope’s 12 maids who were killed by Odysseus to punish them for being involved with the suitors who threatened to take away his wife and kingdom.

Throughout the novel, the 12 maids speak and interrupt through a variety of literary forms. There are children’s rhymes, a court case, an anthropology lecture, a shanty, a lament, and songs. They harangue the royal couple for their roles in the hangings, speaking as a burlesque Greek chorus.

Penelope’s narrative is full of regret but it could be the self-aggrandizement of a self-professed liar. Penelope and Odysseus are survivors. They survive through guile, wit and trickery. They are also expert PR agents, with an eye to their legacies, spinning history to make themselves more sympathetic.

The most intriguing maid harangue is the anthropological tract that speculates that the 12 maids were priestesses, with Penelope as their high priestess, overseeing a matriarchal society over-run by the wave of patrilocal culture that swept through the Mediterranean.

Other well-known characters are re-imagined through Penelope’s eyes. Her cousin Helen is the popular girl, casually cruel, self-absorbed. Her son, Telemachus, is a surly teenager with abandonment issues. Her mother, a sea nymph, is aloof. Her father, who tried to kill her in infancy, is in cheery self-denial. While these mythical figures are contemporized into quirky soap opera characters, they also are presented as people next door. Insofar as a Greek demi-god sovereign could be a next door neighbor.

The novel is a breezy read, meant to be sipped like a strong mixed drink. It’s easy to drink, but the buzz is immediate.

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