I was horrified by the ending of The Odyssey. The brutality of Odysseus taking his revenge on the suitors and the injustice meted out on the young maids asked to scrub away the blood and guts before they’re hanged had my eyes on stalks. Margaret Atwood, rather more eloquently, says that the image of the maids has always haunted her. The Penelopiad tells the story through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s mythically patient wife and the twelve hanged maids.
“Now that I’m dead I know everything” says Penelope in the opening line, and straight away we’re drawn in with her chatty, conspiratorial tone. Which is both best friend and wise elder.
“I repressed a desire to say that Helen should have been kept in a locked trunk in a dark cellar because she was poison on legs. Instead I said, ‘Will you have to go?'”
and so starts her 20 years waiting. Her pragmatic way of dealing with the household, a difficult teenage son and ageing in-laws, is wickedly funny but also painful to read. Telling us her story years and years after her death she seems so mournful, at times bitter, always alone – even in the afterlife, while Helen is still having adventures!
The twelve young maids form a Greek chorus. They perform at intervals during Penelope’s narrative, telling their story through songs, a videotaped court hearing, an anthropology lecture, for example:
The Chorus Line:
If I Was A Princess, A Popular Tune
As Performed by the Maids, with a Fiddle, an Accordian,
and a Penny Whistle
It’s so incredibly creative! But while they’re ‘fun’, as they would traditionally have been, their words are dark and pitiful.
“We were animal young, to be disposed of at will,
Sold, drowned in the well, traded, used,
discarded when bloomless.”
For all that they’re a chorus line, Margaret Atwood doesn’t take away any of the outrage that we feel over their plight. Too right that they have the last word.
The Penelopiad (2005) is the first book I’ve read in The Myths series, but I’ll definitely be reading more, (Weight by Jeanette Winterson, I think will be my next choice); it’s my second read for the 2018 TBR challenge.