Tuesday 23 July 2019

#CBR11 Book 51: "Circe" by Madeline Miller

Page count: 400 pages
Audio book length: 12 hrs 8 mins
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Remix 

Official book description:
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe's place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe's independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

I really didn't know a whole lot about Circe before coming to this book. I read The Odyssey in my first years of university in Scotland, when I studied Classics (so much more entertaining than that snooze fest The Aeneid), where Circe of course appears in a whole chapter, famously turning most of Odysseus' men into pigs. Of course, the power of Odysseus' charisma was such that by the end of his visit on Circe's island, she was pretty much his devoted handmaiden.

Madeline Miller, award-winning author of The Song of Achilles (which I also need to read, but I just can't deal with unhappy endings right now), goes through the known myths about Circe and gives the tales her more modern and feminist interpretation. I think we all know that being a woman in any Greek myth is pretty much the pits. It's also been clear throughout history that any woman who dares to stand up for herself, show independence and power of her own is probably going to be feared and vilified. So it's no wonder that Circe, a strong, independent woman who had the temerity to transform drunken sailors into beasts would become a cautionary tale.

As I said, I didn't really know anything about Circe except that she found Odysseus' men "turn into pigsable". So it was really interesting to discover that she was apparently responsible for turning fellow nymph Scylla into the terrifying sea monster that murdered so many sailors (again, only prior knowledge comes from The Odyssey), that she was the sister of Aeetes, keeper of the Golden Fleece or Pasiphae (and therefore maternal aunt to the Minotaur of Crete). Madeline Miller writes about how Circe and her famous siblings came to discover their knack for sorcery, why Circe was exiled and isolated on her island of Aiaia (where she's really rather happy - her father's court wasn't exactly kind to her).

Circe the daughter of a god and a nymph, and while she apparently has the voice of a mortal, she is immortal and eternal like the other Greek gods. She has centuries in which to perfect her magic arts. When travelling to Crete to help her sister deliver the monster the island would become so famous for, she also befriends the craftsman Deadalus, who gifts her a loom. She has frequent visits from Hermes, and after Odysseus and his men finally leave her island, she has a son to raise (according to Wikipedia, the myths suggest that Odysseus actually gave Circe two sons - I guess Miller thought one boy was enough trouble to deal with).

In some of the sections of the book, not a lot happens - it's just Circe on her island thinking and discovering things. I can see how that might get boring for some readers, but I thought this book was great. I especially liked the final bit, when Circe's son brings Telemachus and Penelope back with him to Aiaia. The famous poem about Odysseus doesn't really dwell on what happens once your father/husband comes back after several decades of war, having lost about half of the promising young men on the island and proceeds to murder the other half. PTSD is a terrible thing, and Homer's epic doesn't really talk about what comes next.

I listened to Circe in audio book. Perdita Weeks is an excellent narrator, with a very soothing voice. This book has already won multiple awards and been favourably reviewed by many Cannonballers. I can just add my recommendation to the list.

Judging a book by its cover: So, confession time - I don't really like the colour orange. Like, at all. But I see why it's such an effective colour to use, it's warm, bright, draws the eye. So I can't really blame them for choosing to make the stylised woman's head and the sheaves of grain on this cover that colour. Especially since on old Greek pottery, the patterns are often an orangey brown against black. It makes sense - but I still don't like the colour orange.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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