On a dreary winter night, I went to the bookstore to escape from the Three Sisters. (I do not mean Chekhov, I mean the Brontës.) I had Gothic burn-out from rereading six of the Brontës masterpieces and loitering too long at Wuthering Heights, Grassdale Manor, and Thornfield Hall.
Feeling out of sorts, I browsed in the new books section but found nothing of interest, probably because I was coming down with a nasty respiratory virus.
As always when I’m ill, I lowered my expectations. It was time to consult the display tables that tell us what the publishers want us to read. My eye was caught by a Retold Myths table, featuring a dozen or more attractive, brightly-colored books with feminine titles like Phaedra, Ariadne, Clytemnestra, and Daughters of Sparta.
When a genre gets its own table, you know it is in demand. For centuries, the poets, playwrights, and novelists have tinkered with Greek myths and recreated them for new audiences. These latest novelistic transformations are marketed as women’s fiction, a cross between romance and historical fiction. They tend to be feminist reinterpretations of the lives of unlikable, underestimated, or misunderstood goddesses, demi-goddesses, mythic queens, and princesses.
By chance I picked up Claire North’s smart, entertaining new novel, Ithaca – one of the best I’ve read in this genre – a take on Homer’s Odysssey. Her reimagining of Penelope’s story focuses on Penelope the politician, left behind in Ithaca while Odysseus fought in the Trojan War.
As in the Odyssey, Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is a female trickster. Suitors have occupied the palace during her husband Odysseus’s long absence and she fends them off by refusing to choose a husband until she has finished weaving her father-in-law Laertes’s shroud. She weaves the shroud by day and unravels it in her room at night.
In North’s version, Penelope also has a Machiavellian intelligence, hidden behind layers of politeness. Behind the scenes with the women, she is an able politician and formidable queen. She has many trusted councillors, most of them women, a few of them old men, and a secret army of women is training to defend their shores from raiders. Women have dominated the economy since the men left to fight in the Trojan War. They are farmers, carpenters, soldiers, and mothers.
I raced through this novel. It’s not just the plot, it’s the structure. North smoothly changes perspectives: the gods weigh in, as well as the humans. Juno is in the shadows, watching over Penelope and making ironic observations about her husband Zeus’s dalliances. Athena is also present, keeping an eye on Telemachus, the sulky teenage son of Penelope and Odysseus.
And Greek tragedy fans will marvel over the strange, unexpected appearance of Orestes and Elektra, who come to Ithaca searching for their mother, Clytemnestra, who killed their father, Agamemnon. Clytemnestra is Penelope’s cousin, and they think she may be hiding out on the island. It’s not the way Aeschylus wrote it, but this is one more headache for Penelope. The revenge is political.
Claire North isn’t flashy but she’s smart, and I prefer her approach to some of the more literary ventures into mythic retellings. I can’t wait to read her sequel, House of Odysseus, which will be published in August.