Top positive review
A Very Human Goddess
15 May 2018
Having read ‘The Odyssey’ ages ago, I admit all I remembered of Circe was that she’d used her witchcraft to turn Odysseus’ men into swine and the speed with which she submitted to Odysseus when her magic didn’t work on him. I liked how she surrounded herself with wild animals but wasn’t impressed with how quickly she invited Odysseus to her bed and allowed him and his men to spend a year on her island.
I’m not usually a fan of stories told in first person, but this was, without doubt, the best way to tell this story. Ms Miller has taken someone who was a minor character in ‘The Odyssey’ and given her a larger-than-life story. I think what makes this book such a riveting read is the total focus on Circe. There are no unnecessary side stories. We’re drawn into Circe’s life; we’re privy to her thoughts… nothing is hidden from us. She’s far from perfect; she can be unreasonable, and gives in to her negative emotions, but I found her very easy to like.
Although the focus of the story is all on Circe, we’re still treated to an astounding cast of characters – Scylla; Daedalus; Circe’s sister, Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur; Medea; not to mention the Titans, gods and goddesses. And, last but by no means least, Penelope – another well-written woman, she quickly became my second favourite character.
Ms Miller uses straightforward, simple words, yet her descriptions are lyrical and evocative, like her description of Helios’ halls, which also conveys something of the sun god’s nature…
‘My father’s halls were dark and silent. His palace was… buried in the earth’s rock, and its walls were made of polished obsidian. Why not? They could have been anything in the world, blood-red marble from Egypt or balsam from Araby, my father had only to wish it so. But he liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.’
I liked that her witch powers don’t appear to her in an instant; she has to put in the work and practice, practice, practice.
Circe’s interactions with the other characters, especially Daedalus, Odysseus, her son, Telegonus, even Penelope and Telemachus are all richly told. In Ms Miller’s hands, they become real people, each one a distinct character, strong and memorable in their own way. The gods are portrayed as illogical and capricious, which is how the Ancient Greeks saw them, but they don’t come across as stereotypical or two-dimensional.
Although a minor deity, Circe isn’t portrayed as an unattainable goddess. We get to know this remarkable woman extremely well because we’re allowed to share her most personal thoughts. For me, that’s what makes this book – we’re shown Circe as a woman, with the same needs, hopes, desires and dreams as humans.
A scholar of the Classics, Madeline Miller knows her Greek mythology inside and out. She’s amassed all that’s out there about Circe and spun a very believable tale. I read this book slowly, not because it was difficult to read, but I was savouring every part of it; I did not want it to end. When I got to the ending, it made me cry; it was exactly how I’d wanted it to end.
At the beginning of May, I was lucky enough to attend a talk at the British Museum with Madeline Miller, Bettany Hughes and Kamila Shamsie. Ms Miller said she’d wanted to reclaim Circe’s story; she wanted to bring the focus back to this very clever woman who had the wit to surpass Odysseus in their verbal sparring. I suppose one can say, if ‘The Odyssey’ was a man’s story then ‘Circe’ is the woman’s story of that same time including the ages before and after.