A lively exposé of double standards in two societies that prided themselves on democratic ideals and respect for women.

STEALING ATHENA

In her fourth historical novel, Essex (Leonardo’s Swans, 2006, etc.) alternates the stories of two influential women, a Greek courtesan and a Scottish heiress, who each played a crucial role in the history of artifacts from Athens’s Golden Age.

In 1799, wealthy Mary Nisbet and her new husband, the dashing but penniless earl of Elgin, journey to Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire. Posted there as British ambassador, Elgin has an all-consuming ambition to secure the priceless marble sculptures adorning the Acropolis in Ottoman-ruled Athens before they are dismantled to make bricks or pulverized to extract lead for Turkish bullets. Strapped from keeping Napoleon at bay, the British government won’t finance Elgin’s ambassadorial or archeological endeavors, so the fiscal burden falls on Mary. A parallel tale set during the 30-year truce that preceded the Peloponnesian War follows Aspasia, the philosopher-courtesan beloved of Athens’s de facto dictator, Pericles, and an outspoken critic of the oppression of women in a city-state supposedly founded by the goddess Athena. Ponderous sections devoted to the logistics of creating and removing the marbles slow down what is otherwise a briskly entertaining narrative. Educated and spirited, Mary is an exemplary wife who endangers her delicate health with multiple pregnancies, underwrites Elgin’s profligate spending and charms the Turks into sanctioning his looting of the Parthenon and other Greek monuments. Aspasia reluctantly permits Pheidias, sculptor of the marbles, to model his colossus of Athena after her. No good deed goes unpunished, Mary and Aspasia learn, for women who forget their place. After Mary is finally estranged by Elgin’s selfishness and financial demands, English law allows him to trash her reputation in divorce court and take her children. Aspasia is publicly tried on trumped-up charges of blasphemy and licentiousness. Both triumph—though Mary pays a heavy price—thanks to their own grit as well as the help of powerful male defenders.

A lively exposé of double standards in two societies that prided themselves on democratic ideals and respect for women.

Pub Date: June 17, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-385-51971-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2008

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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