If you get annoyed when your other half stumbles in late from the pub because of an impromptu excursion to the local kebab shop, be glad you’re not Penelope, wife of the Ancient Greek hero Odysseus. After outfoxing the Trojans with his wooden horse shenanigans, he took ten years to return home. Yes, that’s right. A whole decade. And while he was busy fighting monsters, surviving tempests, blinding Cyclops, dodging evil mermaids and meeting his dead mother at the end of the world, what was poor Penelope up to? She was waiting about in their palace, weaving – like some kind of aristocratic, agoraphobic home-crafter. Only without a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. Or Pinterest
Literary legend Margaret Atwood puts the archetypal long-suffering wife centre stage in The Penelopiad – part of Scottish publisher Canongate’s ambitious Myths series, in which myths from all over the world are reimagined and retold by contemporary writers in short novels.
Atwood subverts the patriarchal Greek myth of Odysseus in her wittily insightful style by giving Penelope, now a spirit in Hades, a chance to tell her own side of the story. For Odysseus, as I’m sure you can imagine, was a dreadful old sexist. While he was getting it on (for years on end!) with witch goddesses and nymphs, Penelope’s duty was to fend off the legions of young suitors who turned up to try and force her into marriage – so they could nick off with Odysseus’s kingdom.
Atwood is especially concerned with Penelope’s 12 maids, who were slain, along with the suitors, when Odysseus finally made it home to reclaim his ‘property’ in an unrestrained display of macho violence. Like a traditional Greek theatrical chorus, the spirits of the maids comment on the action – by singing songs or reciting verse. Indeed, their funny, bawdy and outraged interjections are one of the highlights of this delightfully idiosyncratic novella.