Don’t be mad at me (cause trust me, as a reader I feel bad enough about this as it is), but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read The Odyssey. *GASP* However, I do of course know the story. And I love mythology. And feminism. And Madeline Miller (I think I, like everyone else with a heart who read it, loved her first novel, The Song of Achilles – it put such a humanizing face on one of history/mythology’s greatest heroes). Anyways, the point is, since I love all those things, when I saw her next book would be about Circe, who was really just a cameo in Odysseus’ greater story, I was pretty much, immediately, all in.
“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.”
Circe is a daughter of the sun god and Titan Helios, immortal, but without power or companions. She grows up mostly alone, crouching and hiding and generally in the shadows (if you will). But as she gets older, she discovers something about herself, that she does a certain type of power – witchcraft. It’s power that scares even the gods, and Zeus banishes her to the deserted island of Aiaia. And it is here that she really begins to discover herself: honing her craft, taming wild animals, and crossing paths with many of the famous names in mythology from Daedalus to the Minotaur to Scylla to Athena and, of course, Odysseus. She draws the wrath of many, throughout her journey, and in the end must make some difficult choices about the world she comes from and the one to which she has come to belong.
This is, perhaps, one of my favorite books of all time. It’s a book to savor and read slowly, rich and full of vivid characters and descriptions. I absolutely did not want it to end. In fact, I slowed down my reading the closer I got to finishing, and by the end I was only letting myself read one chapter per night before bed. It was that good. Miller brings to life a woman whose story has hitherto been a footnote in others’ tales and gives her a voice and a purpose and a legend all her own. And she does it with such precise and gorgeously crafted prose. The characterizations are complex and flawless, the descriptions are beyond lush and the story itself is full of all the bloodshed, power struggle, and adventure you could want (welcome to mythology). Each word and line and action and detail feels as though it was individually chosen to be the perfect one for that moment. I can see why it was seven years between the publication of The Song of Achilles and this novel…to be honest, I’m in awe that it only took that long to create such a vibrant, captivating account of such a life, a place, a time.
I also just love how quietly feminist this book was. Nothing was ever explicit or in your face (nor is it perfect/absolute, but in life, what is?), but over the years, Circe has a chance to experience life and experiment with it in a way that is (outside of the fact of her exile which, I grant you, is a large caveat) completely under her own power. She is able to spend time on what means the most to her, use her time and space to find what truly matters to her, react to her circumstances (the good and the bad, even when she had no control over being in them in the first place) in the ways she feels appropriate, choose who/what/when to love, defy gods and man to protect that which she loves, come to terms with her own past and darkness, and, in the end, uses all that to wield the final power to choose her own ending. She experiences (and causes) some terrible things, true, but some great ones too. One moment at a time, she learns how to twist her own skills and advantages into the power she needs to control her own fate. Each tool or piece of knowledge that she gains, she uses, when the time comes, to make her biggest and most important decision – completely on her own terms. In the world of mythology, especially for women but really for everyone, this is almost unheard of and it made me want to cheer out loud for her awesome woman-strength.
Miller uses her own kind of witchcraft in telling this story – hers may be words and will instead of herbs and will like Circe, but the magical, mystical, mesmerizing outcome is the same. I was completely transported while reading this and I can honestly say that I do not remember the last time I was so entranced by a novel. This is a masterpiece.
“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”
“That was the moment I lived for, when it all came clear at last and the spell could sing with its pure note, for me and me alone.”
“Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head. I said nothing, and let her dance.”
“We bear it as best we can.”
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation he was to me.”
“He showed me his scars, and in return let me pretend that I had none.”
“I have a better idea. I will do as I please…” (This is our culmination of the years – yassss girl!)