“The Penelopiad”: Book Review

Last week, I wrote a book review for Life Before Man, a Margaret Atwood novel that, to say the least, I didn’t exactly get on with. I also mentioned that I had started reading The Penelopiad, another Atwood novel that I have wanted to read for a long time now.

For Penelope, wife of Odysseus, running a kingdom while her husband is off fighting the Trojan war is not a simple business. As if it isn’t bad enough that he had been lured away due to the shocking behaviour of her beautiful cousin Helen, Penelope must also bring up her wayward son, face down scandalous rumours and keep more than one hundred lustful, greedy, bloodthirsty suitors at bay… Perhaps not surprising then that it all ends in murder.

Margaret Atwood has given Penelope her own voice so that she can tell her story at last and set the record straight for good.                                                                                                                                                    – The Penelopiad, blurb

FullSizeRender (4)I’ve read The Odyssey twice now (if you’re unfamiliar with the epic, check out my review here), once during my A-Levels, and once during my first year of university. Both times, one of the most apparent things that I noticed, was that it would be almost impossible to apply modern values and ideals to the narrative, as it depicts events that supposedly took place around 1200BC. So, when Homer talks of rape, murder and sacrifice, I didn’t judge the acts too harshly; in Ancient Greece, these brutal events were just a part of the culture, unquestioned and unrivalled.

Margaret Atwood, however, does just this, placing not only a contemporary lens around the events of The Odyssey, but also a feminist lens, as she makes Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, her story’s primary narrator. The Penelopiad is part of The Myths series, which unites several authors, including Atwood, as they retell notable myths in a contemporary way, changing perspectives as they unpick some of the more complex ideas within the myths. This text clearly does this, as Penelope, merely a minor character in the original epic, reveals her own thoughts behind her marriage to and relationship with the king of Ithaca.

‘Oh, that’s only Odysseus,’ said one of the maids. He was not considered – by the maids at least – to be a serious candidate for my hand. His father’s palace was on Ithaca, a goat-strewn rock; his clothes were rustic; he had the manners of a small-town big shot, and had already expressed several complicated ideas the others considered peculiar.                                                         – My Marriage

One of the main strengths of Atwood’s writing, is how the story is actually told; I get the impression that Atwood herself acts as a vehicle for Penelope, as she speaks to us today, from the underworld; indeed, her main narrative is interjected with not only songs and dances from her maids, but with her descriptions of the underworld, as she wanders about the asphodel, still fighting with her infamous cousin, Helen.

Atwood keeps the story contemporary by making subtle references to the modern day, such as through her descriptions of museums:

Some of it [her people’s possessions] made its way to enormous palaces that have – strangely – no kings or queens in them. Endless processions of people in graceless clothing file through these palaces, staring at the gold cups and the silver bowls, which are not even used any more. Then they go to a sort of market inside the palace and buy pictures of these things, or minute versions of them that are not real silver or gold.”                                                                                                                                – My Marriage

Yet one of the key differences between The Odyssey and The Penelopiad lies in how a female protagonist is able to highlight the faults of other women. In the original epic, Helen of Troy (or Sparta, depending on the moment in time) was always presented as a mere object to be passed around between men – the Trojan war was Paris’ fault, not Helen’s, yet Penelope reveals the rivalry between herself and her beautiful cousin, placing almost the entirety of the blame on the woman, not the man. Here, she is actually capable of having started the war.

The sad fact is that people had praised her so often and lavished her with so many gifts and adjectives that it had turned her head. She thought she could do anything she wanted, just like the gods from whom – she was convinced – she was descended. I’ve often wondered whether, if Helen hadn’t been so puffed up with vanity, we might all have been spared the sufferings and sorrows she brought down on our heads by her selfishness and her deranged lust.                                                               – Helen Ruins My Life

FullSizeRender (5)However, it is my opinion that, despite the novel’s title, narrator and story, it’s not really about Penelope, at all. I mentioned earlier that Penelope’s narrative is interjected by the songs and dances from her maids. In this, Atwood alludes to a very small scene in The Odyssey, where Odysseus, after slaughtering Penelope’s suitors, proceeds to punish the maids. In The Penelopiad, Penelope asks these maids to see to her suitors’ every need so she can gain secret information from them.

She “even instructed them to say rude and disrespectful things about me [Penelope] and Telemachus [her son], and about Odysseus as well, in order to further the illusion” (The Shroud), yet Odysseys doesn’t know this, and so, when he finds out that the maids betrayed his honour by sleeping with the suitors (although many of them were raped), he first makes them clear up the massacre, dragging dead bodies from his courtyard, scrub up all the blood, and then has Telemachus hang them.

Penelope has a famous dream in The Odyssey that depicts her beloved geese being slaughtered by a powerful eagle. Odysseus, in both stories, interprets the dream to mean that he is going to slaughter her suitors. Penelope, however, argues that he’s got it wrong – the dream wasn’t about him killing the suitors at all, because she didn’t love the suitors. In reality, it was about him murdering her maids.

I can still remember reading the scene in The Odyssey about the maids, and feeling absolutely horrified, even when I didn’t think them innocent. I didn’t believe Odysseus would treat women that way, as, in these ancient myths, women are not generally murdered – they’re kept for rape and abuse, instead. Atwood does, however, leave her readers with some satisfaction over these deaths. Penelope explains how, once a person has died, they may be reborn into a new body, to live a new life. Whilst she has never done such a thing, she tells of how Odysseus has, many times, and how, each time, the spirits of the maids find him, and punish him.

He’s been a French general, he’s been a Mongolian invader, he’s been a tycoon in America, he’s been a headhunter in Borneo. He’s been a film star, an inventor, an advertising man. It’s always ended badly, with a suicide or an accident or a death in battle or an assassination, and then he’s back here again.                                         – Home Life in Hades

Overall, The Penelopiad exceeded my expectations. I’ve always loved stories like The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and to view one of these stories in such a new, individual way, made me love it all over again. I enjoyed the story, adoring Atwood’s writing style and the way that she interjected such different opinions into such a classic tale.

It’s not a long book, and it won’t take you long to read, so if you’re a fan of The Odyssey, why not check it out? In the meantime, I might try out some of the other stories from The Myths series.


I have also written a review for Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, which you can read here.

“Life Before Man”: Book Review (ish)

I’ve often heard it said that Margaret Atwood is one of the most varied writers alive today. Whilst, one minute, she’ll be working on dystopian scenes of slavery or all-consuming floods, the next, she’ll be considering the raw power of human nature, exploring our thought patterns as our differing emotions intersect with one another.

“The real question is: Does she care whether the human race survives or not? She doesn’t know. The dinosaurs didn’t survive and it wasn’t the end of the world. In her bleaker moments, of which, she realizes, this is one, she feels the human race has it coming. Nature will think up something else. Or not, as the case may be”                                                                                              – Life Before Man.

FullSizeRender (1).jpgI picked up Life Before Man (1979) with these words in the forefront of my mind, and yet, I still find myself struggling with it. I’ve only read one Atwood novel before. The Heart Goes Last (2015) was an exceptional novel; Atwood bound together her apocalyptic visions to her insights into human relationships, producing a story that explored both the extreme, and the ordinary. Due to her skill as a writer, however, each value appeared to weigh as heavy as the other. It’s a thrilling read, even if, arguably, it does grow a little strange towards its end, and it left me with the desire to read as many more of Atwood’s books as I could possibly lay my hands on.

Life Before Man isn’t a book I’d ordinarily pick up off the shelf, and, admittedly, if it hadn’t been written by Atwood, I probably never would have. Generally, I enjoy more action in the books I read, and this novel appears to focus almost entirely on the human mind and the emotions within it. In retrospect, I should have realised that, regardless of author, this wouldn’t be a book that I would enjoy. It’s like my relationship with Austen; I absolutely adore her novels; they’re prolific, her writing style being so beautiful, yet, these aren’t novels that I enjoy reading. I much prefer Dickens’ works, for, although his writing is not as stylistic and awe-inspiring, his storylines keep me interested.

I’m sorry to profess that I haven’t finished reading Life Before Man; nor, I think, will I ever finish it. I can’t remember ever abandoning a book like this before, but I simply can’t get into the story. I don’t feel any emotions whatsoever towards any of the characters. There is no love, hate, or even curiosity. I don’t sympathise with them and I don’t particularly care what happens to them next. As a book-lover, I feel almost as though I have let myself down by abandoning the book like this, but I simply can’t deny it: I’m not enjoying it. I marched into town today and bought The Penelopiad (2005), Atwood’s take on The Odyssey, from Penelope’s point of view. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time, and one I’m genuinely interested in, unlike Life Before Man.

FullSizeRender (3).jpgHowever, although I’ve said all of this, I don’t want to do Life Before Man a disservice; whilst I, personally, couldn’t enjoy the book, that doesn’t at all mean that it’s a bad read. In fact, I think it’s very clever. If I was reading it with a more academic lens, I would devour it without question, but, when I’m reading for pleasure, I want a book that leaves me desperate to know what happens next.

To be fair to the book, it does contain action; my biggest issue was that the majority of this precedes the actual narrative. Life Before Man begins in the wake of a recent suicide, the victim of which has, in Atwood’s words, “blew his head off with a shotgun”. It’s based on the narratives of his sexual partner, her husband, and her husband’s partner – it’s not exactly a nuclear family, yet these complex, intersecting personas provide Atwood with enough vehicles to express the power that the death has over very different people. These differences may be seen in their political views; whilst Nate watches the news with a fierce excitement, his wife has a much harsher view over the entire process:

“She’s no more interested in elections than she is in football games. Contests between men, both of them, in which she’s expected to be at best a cheerleader. The candidates, collections of grey dots, opposing each other on the front pages, snorting silent though not wordless challenges. She doesn’t care who wins, though Nate does; though Chris would have.”                       – Life Before Man.

I’ll leave you with the blurb of the book, along with the hope that you don’t take my word for it – I couldn’t get into this book over personal preference. I know others absolutely love this book, and I can understand why. It is interesting, just not in the right way for me to read right now, and maybe it gets more interesting as it goes on; I barely made it half way, so who am I to judge? Who knows, maybe one day, I’ll come back to it, but, for now, I have The Penelopiad to read.

“Elizabeth, monstrous yet pitiable; Nate, her husband, a patchwork man, gentle, disillusioned; Lesje, a young woman at the natural history museum, for whom dinosaurs are as important as men. A sexual triangle; three people in thrall to the tragicomedy we call love…”                                                                 – Life Before Man, blurb.

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You can read my finished review of The Penelopiad here.

“Accidental Damage”: Book Review

I was recently asked to review a self-published book by Alice May, called Accidental Damage; whilst this is not a genre of book that I have really explored before, this book really impressed me, and I have therefore copied my review below! Enjoy!

Alice May’s Accidental Damage offers a first-person account of the trials and incidents possible within everyday life; whilst struggling to raise four children and keep her house in order, the heroine of the story experiences her world, quite literally, crumbling around her, as her house begins to crack in two, and her insurance provider is unwilling to offer her aid. Blaming the misfortune on herself, the heroine fights to punish herself for the incident, as she dramatically burns her treasured art-works in the garden bonfire, and forces herself to give up her greatest passion for the sake of her family. This is a story about love, sacrifice and guilt, embodying a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to reveal the internal monologue of the heroine, as she fights to choose between her passion for painting, and the care and support that she feels honour-bound to provide.

The aesthetics of the book are very pleasing; the cover art, originally produced by the author, herself, dramatically represents some of the complex themes of the text; the swirling waters coincide with the disorder and chaos taking place inAccidental Damage the narrative, whilst also linking to the fluid nature of the heroine’s thoughts, as they are delivered to the reader exactly how they are thought by the character: constant and powerful, flitting from idea to idea as the heroine processes her various situations. As the author notes towards the end of the book, the painting also offers a glimmer of hope within the chaos, as the swirling waters are centred around a white surface to the depths, just as, within the chaos of the situation, there always remains that distant feeling of hope. The formatting of the book is also very interesting; as well as having short chapters that are grouped by numbered ‘parts’, which make the book more accessible, the author has included definitions following each chapter headings. These definitions offer a unique twist to the narrative, as they not only confirm the meanings, but hint at the content of the next chapter and thus urge the reader to delve further into the book. At the very end of the text, after the epilogue, the author has also listed “The Comforting Recipes of Chaos and Logic” and “Innovative Games for Bored Barbarian Boys”, which add a personal feel to the book and end it on a unique, pleasant note, as the reader is able to take something away from it. A further sense of intrigue is created by the book’s blurb, a series of questions helping to evoke interest about the story. These questions may not be perfectly executed, certain wordings within the content, such as “or has she?” may seem a little too cliqued, and yet, as this is a present factor within any blurb, this should not be treated too harshly. Overall, it is well-written, a small exert from the text providing an accurate insight into the main narrative, as well as revealing the harsh plight of the heroine, and how she was forced to live, with her entire, rather large family of six, in a tent at the back of her garden, until her situation could be resolved. If nothing else, this intriguing blurb could be a little longer!

The actual content of the book is superb; interwoven storylines of the past and present make it more interesting, for as the heroine reflects on her past, readers of the text are offered two separate narratives: the one of the nervous painter who cringes away from storms, and the one of the struggling mother, who camps out in her back garden and braves precarious buildings for the sake of rescuing her daughters’ makeup and her sons’ PlayStation. What must, arguably, be the most interesting factor about this book, however, is the presentation, and anonymity, of its characters. There are no real names mentioned in the text; the heroine always speaks in first-person, and gives nicknames to everyone she meets, even her Barbarian Horde of children, Chaos, Logic, Quiet and Small. These humorous, but descriptive nicknames, provide an entertainment factor, as well as a proximity to the characters that perhaps real names cannot. The existence of “Quiet”, for example, as an identity for the heroine’s eldest son, opens a narrative opportunity to discuss the characteristics of the boy through his quiet persona. These names also differentiate the children and give them bigger, more interesting personalities, through being labelled by such distinctive traits. The anonymity stretches further still, however; allusions such as “Structural Engineer Man” and “Loss Adjuster Number 1” provide what might be called a more honest view of the world. In moments of chaos, the workers would be only what their jobs made them, and their personalities would be ignored; their names are therefore insignificant details that, considering the nature of the crisis, are simply unnecessary.

The pacing of the book is also something to be commended; the use of short chapters makes the book easy to read and moves the pace of the main events on at a good, consistent pace. The same is to be said about the style of the work; due to the stream-of-conscious style of writing, where it is the heroine’s actual thoughts that are being presented to the reader, the short, snappy sentences that sometimes occupy entire paragraphs demonstrate the speed of human thoughts, and help to keep the story interesting as it progresses. This speed may be an issue in certain parts of the text, however, yet, due to the style of writing, is difficult to avoid; generally, the pace of any book would be much slower at its beginning, more than anywhere else along its narrative. This text perhaps deals with the opening passages too quickly, for whilst it is very effective how the heroine recovers her painting equipment during a storm, which arguably represents her inner chaos and personal crisis, the fact that she suddenly must recover the paints could be explored a little more thoroughly. Why does she do this at that moment? What really triggers her passion once more? Pivotal moments such as this could perhaps be slowed down a little to allow more textual explanations, allowing the text to seem more powerful and effective. At the same time, however, the fact that the pace of the book is consistent is one of its main strengths, as it does not allow the reader to become bored of the plot or too confused along its course.

Accidental Damage is well written, terms more complex than what may be known as the commonly spoken language, intermingled with standard terms, keep it accessible to a wide range of readers, whilst also allowing it to reach out towards a more sophisticated audience. If there is any issue to be had with the language and presentation of the narrative, it would be the existence of potential typing errors (such as those on pages 26, 127 and 218), where there are sentences such as: “The general consensus from all consulted was that it had stood for 350 years already it would stand for 350 more.” Arguably, this sentence may be missing an ‘if’ or a ‘because’. Overall, however, the writing style is erudite, working to create a very readable, concrete piece of work. Such small errors appear in most books, especially self-published books, if only because they have had less editors reading over them numerous times. Indeed, what this novel is, is very credible. The plot is not only interesting, but moving and haunting, particularly when considering the fact that it was based on a true story. What with the elegant mode of writing, the fantastic formatting and unique twists both within the narrative and its presentation, this is really is an excellent read. Because, when it comes down to it, it just is a good story: fast-paced, but relatable and genuine. It is therefore a book that I would happily recommend to anyone.

Play Review: The Taming of the Shrew

We all know Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth, but we are generally less educated in Shakespeare’s comedies. The fact of it is, though, that Shakespeare wrote more comedies than he did tragedies or histories. Tfullsizerender-1his review will focus on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, which, in my opinion, has some of the most controversial issues of any of the Shakespearean plays.

The play essentially tells the tale of a rich man who is desperate to see his two daughters marry into noble families. The youngest of the two, Bianca, has many suitors, and is admired for her beauty and modesty. Yet her father, Baptista, refuses to let her marry any of these suitors until his older daughter, Katherina, has married. Unlike her sister, Katherina does not have a single suitor; she is outspoken, loud, and, in contemporary terms, unlady-like, or, as one suitor calls her, a “fiend of hell” (Shr. 1.1.98). The play continues, disguise and intrigue entering its narrative, forming what is generally seen as an amusing story, fitting for what was labelled a “comedy”.

Petruchio: And you good sir. Pray, have you not a daughter 
                     Called Katherina, fair and virtuous?

Baptista:    I have a daughter, sir, called Katherina.
(Shr. 2.1.42-44).

I, personally, found the above lines very amusing, but there are frequent periods of blunt comedy within the text, especially concerning Grumio, a servant to one of the suitors. Whilst not being directly named a “fool”, this is the role he seems to play, and strengthens the element of comedy in the play.

Despite this, the genre of “comedy”, in concerns to The Taming of the Shrew, has often been challenged. After all, whilst this is essentially a tale of romance, and thus presents the opportunity for comedy, it is a dark romance, the “shrew” in the title actually referring to Katherina, and the story depicting the “taming” of her outspoken personality, meaning that the end product of the play is a quiet, obedient Katherina who follows every word her husband says, her personality seemingly obliterated.

Petruchio, Katherina’s husband, forces her to endure several days without food and sleep, torturing her as a part of this “taming” process. Then, upon returning her to his father, he tests her obedience. He calls the sun the moon, and an old man a young maiden. Katherina, perhaps out of terror of her husband, agrees with him. This misogyny goes a step further, too; the very conclusion of the play depicts the husbands of Katherina and Bianca to have a bet, each claiming to have the most obedient wife. Petruchio wins the bet, having Katherina fondle his feet in front of the crowd, which includes her entire family.

Obviously, The Taming of the Shrew was designed for a patriarchal world where the woman was seen as lesser to man. The majority of its audience in the globe would have been men, and so it is easy to see why a play with what now is such controversial content, could have been, at the time, funny. However, this may look too bleakly on Shakespearean society. Whilst it is true that the play’s audience would not have the same views of equality that exist in modern society, for this was a time before the waves of feminism, many critics argue that not everyone would be able to laugh at Katherina’s torture at the hands of Petruchio. This is, of course, complete speculation, but some argue that the sexism is so blatant in the play, that Shakespeare actually uses satire to indicate the injustice in society, and, in this move, makes himself one of the first feminists (although he cannot be labelled as such, seeing as how the word “feminism” did not exist during his time, let alone a concept of this movement).

Regardless, The Taming of the Shrew is an exceptionally interesting play, if confusing on occasion, when more than half of the characters on stage are in disguise. It is funny, and it is thought-provoking; I would recommend giving it a read, or else checking to see if there are any recent performances of the play, seeing as Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read on a page.

Note: the quotes in this post use line references from the Norton edition of the play:
Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. Edited by Dympna Callaghan, Norton, 2009.

Book Review: “Wuthering Heights”

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With its complicated themes and layered narrative, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is renowned for being one of the leading novels of the gothic genre. It is undeniably a fascinating read, if only due to the numerous character and plot interpretations that can be had from it.

However, you should not take this book on if you’re not prepared to be fully committed to the storyline. Lockwood, a seemingly unnecessary character, is, in many ways, merely a device for the story to be told through, and yet the first few chapters resolve primarily on his impressions of the Wuthering Heights building and its inhabitants. Arguably, this gives depth and a better understanding of the isolation that Heathcliff and his family experience, but, in many ways, the gripping story of Wuthering Heights doesn’t really begin until after Cathy’s death, and the relationships within the next generation become steadily more intriguing. One thing must be made clear, though; this is not a love story. It is not a cheerful, upbeat novel in which readers have no choice but to expect a happy ending.

Wuthering Heights is a brutal insight to the class divisions and xenophobia of the Victorian Era, its narrative intrinsically linked to themes of envy, betrayal and revenge. Some critics would even go as far to say that the famous couple, Cathy and Heathcliff, never really had a mutual love between them; perhaps Heathcliff’s insanity produced an entire relationship for his deprived mind to obsess over; perhaps our impressions of the perfect, untainted love between them are, in reality, completely deluded.