Friday, 31 May 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch out attention.
Like many children in the Anglosphere, I grew up on retellings of the Iliad and the Odyssey. In them, as a rule, heroes are allowed but one fatal flaw. And gods are either cardboard cut-outs or petulant humans with super-powers. Madeline Miller’s gift is to flesh out those stereotypes of myth and legend and give them fully formed lives of their own.

Seven years ago, when I reviewed Miller's The Song of Achilles, I ended by looking forward to her promised retelling of the Odyssey, with Odysseus – one of The Song’s most intriguing characters – as its central character. What Miller has delivered instead is a tale told by Circe, the nymph – or witch – who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. In doing so, she reveals Odysseus in a fresh perspective – both hero and, in his own way, monster.

But Circe’s story stretches back long before her meeting with Odysseus and survives well after his death. Miller picks up the multiple threads of her life from different myths and weaves them into a rich and complex tapestry. What is it life to be born the daughter of a Titan – a lesser god, immortal yet all but powerless, subject to the whims of Titans and Olympians alike? What does it mean that she becomes a witch? And how, and why?

And what of those whose lives intertwine with hers? Prometheus. Scylla. Pasiphae. Daedalus. Odysseus, Telemachus and Penelope. Miller delivers them all as fully realised, complex characters.

Miller succeeds in finding a balance between Circe as someone we can relate to, but also someone who is not merely human. You can look at Circe as someone who survives an abusive childhood, sexual assault and abandonment. Who is deeply wounded and draws on her own resources to heal herself.

“All my life had been murk and depth, but I was not part of that dark water. I was a creature within it.”

Yet we are never allowed to forget that her immortality gives her both powers and limitations .

“Guilt and shame, remorse, ambivalence, those are foreign countries to our kind, which must be learned stone by stone.”

An even greater achievement than The Song of Achilles, the breadth and scope of Miller’s imaginings here are breathtaking.

Shortlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Literature

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood. The Bees by Laila Paul

Avoid If You Dislike: Myths given depth and form

Perfect Accompaniment: Olives, cheese and wine

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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