The Odyssey from Circe's point of view

This arresting novel needs more sex

April 19, 2018
Circe by Wright Barker
Circe by Wright Barker

In The Song of Achilles, her debut novel, Madeline Miller rewrote the Iliad for a 21st-century audience, bringing to erotic life the love story between Achilles and Patroclus never made explicitly sexual in the original epic. It was the surprise winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012. Critics were divided between admirers of her sumptuous style, poignant dialogue and ability to conjure up mysterious worlds faraway and long ago in a few deft images; others saw it as a childish attempt to preach about gay rights and pacifism while displaying her classical erudition.

Now she has taken on the Odyssey. It will not resolve the critical disagreement. The epic is retold, along with many other classical texts, by the witch Circe as narrator, a figure whose transformation of men into swine has been used to allegorise humanity’s animal instincts since antiquity. Miller’s experiment in lending consciousness to an immortal who envies humans offers opportunities for feminist revision of famous characters both mortal and divine, especially the egotistical Odysseus and the irresponsible and laddish Hermes. It also leads to a suspenseful metaphysical dilemma unresolved until the final page. Miller’s polished diction and descriptive powers, especially in the terrifying gyrations of the sea-monster Scylla, are not in doubt.

There are arresting scenes, such as the birth of the Minotaur by Caesarean section. The complexity of the storyline in ancient sources after Odysseus’ return to Ithaca challenges Miller’s narrative control, however; her inclusion of the myths of Prometheus, Daedalus, Jason and Medea add to the bewilderment.

But my main reservation is with Circe herself. She is driven by her sexual desires for mortal heroes, but we never really understand what happens in the beautiful golden bed on her exotic island. I don’t usually ask for more sex in novels, but, in this particular case, it is sorely needed.


by Madeline Miller (Bloomsbury, £16.99)