If you went near a Waterstones in April, you will have seen stacks of Circe, a paperback with a beautifully intricate bronze and black cover. It was their book of the month and is also ours and – having now made the shortlist – may win this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Anyone who has read Madeline Miller’s heady first novel Song of Achilles (2012) will know why her second book has appealed to such a broad range of readers. They will also be keen to devour it because Miller has once again turned a Homeric epic into, as the Independent said of her first book, “a sexy page-turner.”
Song of Achilles has now been published in 25 languages as well as winning the Women’s Prize for fiction (then called the Orange Prize). It has also helped shift perceptions of classical epics. When Miller wrote Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood may have already written The Penelopiad (her 2005 retelling of The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Odysseus’s wife) but internationally bestselling feminist takes on classical epics were still a rarity. Since then, Pat Barker has published The Silence of the Girls, which tells the story of The Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, the woman whom Achilles and Agamemnon fight over. It also joins Circe on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. And now Natalie Haynes, the trained classicist and former stand up comedian has written a praised novel, A Thousand Ships, about the women caught up in the Trojan War.
It is Circe – which centres on the witch from The Odyssey – which has attracted widespread attention and truly captured readers’ imaginations, however, with Miller’s intoxicating prose. It is a novel full of wildness: self-harm, reckless wilfulness and more than one shattering childbirth scene.
Women are seen as food: “We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe as the narrator mocks the idea that women are delicate creatures, described as “flowers, eggs, anything that gets crushed at a moment’s notice” when looking upon Penelope but she also demonstrates the impact of her own mettle by confronting the gods. If that wasn’t enough, she describes the grind of single motherhood, running out of nappies and realising of her child, “Every fault in me his raising laid bare.”
Anyone who was put off classical narratives by having to study them or who has never encountered The Odyssey in any form should not be deterred from reading Circe. Miller is an astonishingly inventive writer and she describes some incidents with such freshness that it may only be as they reach their conclusion that you realise you knew all along what would happen to that young man who it turns out is called Icarus or how Medea would end up. If these names mean nothing to you, it is still worth picking up this vivid and entertaining novel. Miller writes about colour possibly better than any other living novelist whilst, at the same time, exploring an idea as profound as “those who fight against prophecy only pull it more tightly around their throats”.
Circe as a figure outside Miller’s book is best-known for the tale in The Odyssey when Odysseus visits her island of Aiaia and turns most of his crew into swine. In Miller’s version, this can be seen as an act of self-defence and Circe’s gift for magic is positioned as greater than the power of the gods, in some ways, as it is based on work and motivated by love. Miller also winningly shows the reader the value in mortality, something the deities will never know.
What did you think? Please leave your comments below. And find details about our May book club here.