Having read The Odyssey as part of a readalong, reading The Penelopiad was recommended as a complementary piece to Homer’s original work on which this is based.
I originally read this book 5 years ago and, while I enjoyed it, I felt like I was missing something. Atwood’s writing is beautiful but there was a gaping hole in this book for me originally – I didn’t understand what was going on! Now, having read The Odyssey – I adored it and it’s probably skyrocketed to near the top of my favourite books of all time. Knowing the backstory just elevated this book completely.
Following the story of Penelope, this is told through 3 perspectives – or more in 3 different ways; there’s Penelope’s ‘biography’, the life in the Underworld and the chorus of maids. The combination of the three together worked so well (as well as I remembered, and some). For such a short book, it encompassed so much.
Penelope has grown bold since The Odyssey and in death and is no longer the meek woman we saw in the original but a bold one who doesn’t mind speaking her mind and spilling a few uncomfortable beans. Putting it simply, Penelope has sass.
And while Penelope’s story was more of a retelling, with suspicion and theory laced in the main difference in this is the voices of the maids. These twelve girls are the Chorus in this book and appear every now and then playing an accompaniment to the text and giving us new perspectives on their story. This carries on until Penelope herself reveals to us that they were never betraying Odysseus, she had asked them herself to butter up the suitors to obtain information for her. They had never betrayed Odysseus or his kingdom. So their murder was just that – murder.
Having leisurely read this over a dreary morning, I was constantly making links back to The Odyssey – making mental notes of how Atwood’s retelling affected my perception of the original in parts. I particularly liked the notion that Penelope knew that the ‘beggar’ was Odysseus tied with the moment that she allowed Eurycleia to make that discovery – all while we were led to believe she was sleeping, but was in fact laughing. Possibly my favourite link between the two books.
Ultimately, I’m glad I reread this and I would recommend anyone reading this DID read The Odyssey alongside it – before, after, it doesn’t matter but it does make this book a lot more enjoyable to read.