Friday, 16 September 2016

The Penelopiad


Book Title: The Penelopiad
Author: Margaret Atwood
Date Started: September 11th 2016
Date Completed: September 16th 2016
Genres: Historical, Fantasy
Quality Rating: Five Stars
Enjoyment Rating: Five Star
Final Rating: Five stars

It's taken me a long time to get around to reading Margaret Atwood but I'm definitely going to be picking up more now, and I'm so happy The Penelopiad was the first book of hers I tried. This is exactly what I think an adaptation should be, and with the beautiful addition of Atwood's very clear and distinguished personality, I can't praise this book highly enough. She's the feminist author of the century and I would love to read more mythology from her.

I've heard that each book Atwood writes could very come from a different author, but I really hope that isn't true because I'd happily read this style forever. The dry wit and keen intelligence in the writing of this book is amazing, both in entertainment and getting across very strong opinions. Suffice to say Atwood isn't softening reality of the classical world for anyone's comfort - yet there's still a playful edge to the narration which lets the audience embrace the harsh truths of the piece.
The accomplishment that amazed me the most, though, was Atwood's adaptation skills. The Penelopiad so perfectly takes the proper, pure mythology and adapts it into something new and accessible without tainting the original. You can tell she's passionate about the world of classical literature, but she has the talent to mix it with her own style and not leave anything behind in the process. In fact, throughout the whole novel we have lovely little references to the so much of classical literature - my favourite being the transitions from prose to epic poetry, to tragic theatre and back - but there's so much of Atwood's own persona and characterisation that it doesn't matter if you understand the references, there's still plenty to engage with.

The Odyssey is one of my favourite classics, so naturally I was going to like a retelling of it if it was faithful enough to the orignal - but I think I loved the parts Atwood conjured up herself just as much (if not more) than the direct retelling of the original. Regardless of you're even aware of Odysseus' story or anything in classical literature, I think The Penelopiad is very accessible, but I do think I got a little bit of extra pleasure with that awareness of what the original is like (and undoubtedly the fact that I have fond memories of complaining about Odysseus and his ways, so hearing similar judgement from his wife is quite entertaining in itself).
Classical literature from antiquity is often very intimidating, even to those who study it, which is why I think something like this is the perfect thing to open a gateway for readers of any age. I honestly think studying The Penelopiad in GCSE Classics (is that a thing?) would be a brilliant way to teach people about ancient literature without throwing them in at the deep end - so many of the key themes of The Odyssey are in The Penelopiad, and so many of the original little tales are in there, but with some criticism and analysis of the poem itself slipped in there, and in a much shorter and less dense story. This book is easy to read, good at explaining concepts and themes, but keeps plot and character focused - what better way is there to make something traditionally exclusive accessible to everyone?

This book follows a lot of the famous heroes from The Odyssey, and effectively communicates the attitudes and personalities of the time, but at its centre is a woman who is rarely mentioned past being Odysseus' wife. Penelope fulfils this role, and continues on to write her own story in a brilliantly clever and thoughtful narration, but she also provides a commentary on the women of the classical world in general. Having practically no experience in reading stories that actually include classical women as both high-borns and slaves, I adored this dynamic and the relationships explored.

The Penelopiad is a love letter to epic poetry with a modern eye. If classical literature has ever been intimidating, Atwood has translated it to new audiences effortlessly, balancing the traditional themes and intent with a new twist of feminism, comedy and witty intelligence.

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