“Even an obvious fabrication is some comfort when you have few others.” – Thoughts on The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
Ah, Margaret Atwood. I’ve only read two of your works – your quite obscure short story collection, Bluebeard’s Egg, and this retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view – and still I know for certain I will love the rest. I have yet to read your award-winning books, but I will hold on to The Penelopiad and claim it as my favorite of yours (so far).
“Half-Dorothy Parker, half-Desperate Housewives,” so says the blurb from The Independent (UK), and while I haven’t read anything by Dorothy Parker and am no big fan of Desperate Housewives, I will go on a limb here and assume they must be really great, to be half-and-half of something as wonderful as this book.
Written in two alternating forms – in a narration and in varying styles of poetry, for isn’t Atwood known for both? – The Penelopiad is the story of the loyal and cunning Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who really isn’t all that popular or well-known in Greek literature as her husband (I didn’t even know about her until I read the book, but then again I haven’t read The Odyssey – such a shortcoming, I know). She is sassy, in a refined sort of way; she is hilarious, the kind that makes you want to guffaw but for some reason you try to stifle it all in a prolonged chuckle. Penelope is sarcastic and ironic and grave and serious, and she makes you laugh even though she’s sad, and I am still in awe with how Atwood perfected such a voice. Penelope is a character that is such a character, if you know what I mean.
The story is told by Penelope herself (the narration) and by her twelve maids – the twelve maids who were hanged by Odysseus upon his return after years of absence – as a sort of Chorus that kept asking one question: why were they hanged? And here we find out that The Odyssey is plagued with intrigue; that upon closer inspection, it wasn’t just about Odysseus and his adventures. That maybe, just maybe, Penelope wasn’t the quintessential faithful wife history claims her to be. “What can a woman do when scandalous gossip travels the world? If she defends herself, she sounds guilty.”
There so much duality in The Penelopiad: the styles of writing, the versions of each episode in the story, the characters themselves. Well, everything and everyone except Odysseus, I guess – known as a trickster, a great persuader, a liar and a con-man, which he all is, consistently, even to his own wife. And she to him, maybe, could be.
“The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.
But we did.
Or so we told each other.”
Ultimately, The Penelopiad makes you think of how the truth is obscured by the passing of time, and how nothing is ever reliable, not even one’s self.
PS. In keeping with Atwood’s everything-isn’t-what-it’s-said-to-be, Helen of Troy – who happens to be Penelope’s cousin – is quite the little bitch.