I finished Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad last week and have mixed feelings about it. I usually like Margaret Atwood’s novels (even though I have a hard time with science fiction) and there is a lot to learn and to write around big Greek myths, just like in centuries before, people used to tell and retell the most important stories, creating something new by adding layers to the basic structure. When I heard about the Canongate project (through Danielle and later Eve’s Alexandria) I thought “interesting!” and looked forward to Margaret Atwood’s contribution, because I thought that adding a feminist view to Ulysses and Penelope’s tale would be worthwhile. It reminded me of Jane Smiley’s rewriting of King Lear in A Thousand Acres.
My lack of enthusiasm comes from Penelope’s character in this version. There is something wrong with her voice, in my opinion. She comes out very deadpan and cold, so that I couldn’t really empathize with her tragic story. During her childhood she is supposed to have been thrown into the sea by her father… but she talks about this even with a biting, detached dark humour that doesn’t make it very believable. Later on, as her husband has been missing for years and her estate is occupied by suitors who threaten to ruin her or take her by force, she says that she cries a lot in her private apartments, but nowhere do we see her getting slightly emotional. Only when she speaks with scorn and envy about her beautiful cousin Helen does her anger get warmer. Of course, Helen could well have been mean and scheming, but Penelope comes out a bitter, jealous woman that I didn’t much pity. The tale about the twelve maids that were killed by Ulysses upon his return was interesting, but we didn’t get to know them very well, they remained too indistinct from one another and in Penelope’s background.
I must also add that the (hardcover) book is a really nice object to have in hand: cream, thick paper with some red ink from time to time, very crisp and clear typography and wide margins that makes the reading so smooth and comfortable. Don’t laugh, aesthetics count… I am reading the 8pt-characters-single-space-without-margin American Pastoral and I blame the money-pinching paper-saving printer and publisher for any future loss of my eyesight!