Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

It’s been a while! Mostly because of work commitments this semester. Teaching literature often requires a reacquaintance with some of the classics and I don’t really see much point in writing reviews of Oliver Twist or Mrs Dalloway since those ships have kind of sailed. Having said that, I might post some of my teaching materials in the near future in case they’re of use to anyone else lucky enough to be teaching British and Irish literature.

Anyway, having revisited a few old favourites, I’m now back into uncharted territory so far as my reading is concerned, and this week’s review is for a book which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction this year (https://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk). It’s a novel which succeeds in merging the old and the new; the ancient and the contemporary, since the whole point of myth is that it never goes away. It feeds into the historical and cultural contexts it encounters, and is affected by them in turn.

The great current shift in myth-telling has seen many women writers reclaim ancient stories from a gendered perspective. There’s been – to name but a few – Ali Smiths’ rewriting of Ovid in Girl meets Boy (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2016/02/12/review-ali-smith-girl-meets-boy); Daisy Johnson’s incredible rendition of Oedipus Rex in Everything Under  (katecudahy.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/review-everything-under-by-daisy-johnson); Pat Barker giving voice to the women of Troy in The Silence of the Girls (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silence-Girls-Pat-Barker/dp/0241338077) which was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize this year, and Circe by Madeline Miller.

Circe  is a book to be devoured and revelled in. While the titular character is limited to her role as witch and deceiver of men in The Odyssey the sorceress/goddess/nymph who transforms sailors into pigs – and to a few brief mentions in other areas of Greek myth, Miller spins a complex tale of growth, maturity and self awareness. It’s a book which fleshes out the bones of its main character to give us a full-bodied woman who errs and stumbles, but who ultimately finds her way. She stands up to both gods and men, ultimately refuting her fate to forge her own path.

“I find in myself no taste for fighting Trojans or building empires. I seek different days’ (p. 304) Though these lines are not uttered by Circe herself, for me they spell out the message of the book. Its characters live of fall not through the enacting of heroic deeds, but in self-acceptance and self-awareness. And ultimately  – without throwing too many spoilers in readers’ direction – the characters that ultimately fail are those like Odysseus, so caught up in his own legend that he never truly sees himself.

The novel reads like a who’s who of Greek mythology – with Titans, Olympians and famed mortals such as Daedalus or Medea all putting in appearances. And yet, while the book could so easily have swung into mere Hellenic name-dropping or soap opera, it never does. These characters are here for a reason, and it’s more than clear that Miller has put in the hours as far as research is concerned. The story is captured in a lush prose which conjures and transforms just as Circe herself gives shape  to the world around her.

This is  a book which reveals why we still need myth, and why, if myths are to survive, they need rewriting – with one eye on the past and the other on the present. A literary marvel and a great start to my summer reading.

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