Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller

I found this book to be hypnotic and it was not one that I expected to become so enthralled in.  In reflecting on the book, I can see that that hypnotism worked itself on me in three ways; familiarity with characters, suspension of disbelief and the breadth of the story.

Immediately I was familiar with these characters. All those stories from Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey, Greek gods and myths and legends that are so much part of our western literature, those familiar stories work their hypnotism and keep the reader on track and going forward. We know these characters; we know their exploits and the world in which they live.  Miller uses this familiarity to push forward, expanding and deepening the story, painting characters in vivid pictures, until we know them thoroughly and their actions are not just believable, but expected; the vengeful Athena, the untrustworthy Hermes.

Secondly, there is a suspension of disbelief.  Speculative / fantasy / science fiction has never been a favourite of mine for that reason, but somehow my prior knowledge of the characters cut through a whole lot of ‘world building’; these are mythical characters and Miller expects that her readers can jump right in and deal with the story, plot and characters without having to be coaxed through ‘this is how things are here’. We know to suspend disbelief because these are gods and anything is possible; their interaction with mortals, their petty rivalries, their power and jealousy. So, at times it was a bit tricky. For example, Circe could be transported by her father Helios in his golden chariot in the blink of an eye, but this was preceded by her anguish over what to pack; a warm cloak, a knife, a tapestry? The drudgery of human choices sitting beside supernatural power.

Thirdly, the breadth of this novel is truly amazing. The action just keeps on happening; small incidents which add to our knowledge of Circe and other characters and large events like the birth of the Minotaur and the creation of Scylla which underpin the plot.  The reader is always conscious of the mortals; Glaucus, Odysseus, the sailors, Telegonus, Telemachus and Penelope, conscious of their vulnerability and frailty in this world of the gods.

Madeline Miller is a ‘classicist’, her knowledge of these stories is the result of a life-long study.  She has been able to re-work these stories and present them to her 21st Century audience in a convincing speculative fiction style with elements of magic, fantasy and science fiction in a dystopian world. Her writing is superb, with plot and characters vividly alive and language to be savoured.

Madeline Miller revealed in an interview that she wanted Circe to occupy the main role, as Odysseus did in The Odyssey. In that epic, Circe was a minor character who came and went.  In this story, Odysseus comes and goes in the same way, but Circe is always front and centre. The book can be viewed through a feminist lens where Circe steps outside traditional roles, her witchcraft being her empowerment in a male dominated world. Or through a sociological lens where the characters represent society; the gods have the power, the heroes are celebrities and the lower orders merely exist. Or as an effective reimagining of ancient stories, highlighting those truths, universals and archetypes contained in the originals.  Or perhaps it’s all three of these and more.  It’s a great read.

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