Circe by Madeline Miller
When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.
Thus begins Circe, Madeline Miller’s long awaited follow-up to the wonderful Song of Achilles and a reimagining of the Odyssey from one of its most infamous women.
The daughter of a naiad and the Titan Helios, Circe is herself a nymph: the least of lesser goddesses, not powerful like her towering father or as interesting as her alluring mother, definitely less exciting than her siblings, Circe spends generations of her immortal life in the halls of her Titan ancestors hiding in corners, humbled and bullied by her more powerful relatives.
Until one day a fateful encounter with another God changes everything. As Prometheus is held in chains in her father’s halls waiting for his punishment by the Olympians for helping mortals, Circe breaks her father’s order by daring to approach the prisoner.
That one conversation, that one moment of communion, that one daring instant changes everything.
It’s the beginning of Circe’s own fascination for mortals and her slow learning process to become a witch, to free herself from self-doubt, to find a place in the world.
In that process, she is banned to a deserted island, a place she can call home and where, through the course of centuries she will come to know some of the greatest heroes in Greek mythology—and some of the greatest villains too. The fact that Odysseus and the Goddess Athena are both heroes and villains are only part of the fun.
I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.
Gorgeously written in an almost understated yet still poetic fashion, Circe is an examination of heroism, mortality, and divinity as well as a feminist, female-focused story. The former is part and parcel of Circe’s arc, her engagement with the ideal heroes of Greek myths, her understanding of her own immortality and divinity.
The latter looks not only at a character who has been vilified since Homer but also at the way that women, especially less powerful women, have been written about in history. Circe’s encounters with a number of men—Helios, Glaucus, Daedalus, Odysseus—as well as her fraught relationship with the women in her life—including her mother, her sibling, her rival Scylla, Medea, and Athena—are stepping stones toward the most important encounters she has, by which time she has changed both her outlook on men and on women. After all, internalised misogyny is a thing that even a goddess—heck, specially goddesses—need to take care of. And oh boy, Madeline Miller and her Circe throw so much shade at Homer:
We were endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.
It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.
The closing chapters of this novel—the portrayal of a late-life relationship with both Penelope and Telemachus—are a thing of beauty. I was not expecting a lovely romance when reading this book and yet there it was waiting for me in the end:
It was so simple. If you want it, I will do it. If it would make you happy, I will go with you. Is there a moment that a heart cracks?
Another thing waiting for me and Circe in the end: reparations, challenge, and a change so great with our heroine coming full circle.
This is truly a gorgeous, gorgeous novel.
In Booksmugglerish: 9 out 10