I’m not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but it certainly wasn’t what I got. Not to say I was disappointed; if anything, the book exceeded my expectations. For a book steeped in Greek mythology, it came across as surprisingly human. Then again, maybe that makes it the perfect retelling for the modern age: just as the ancients created the myths to explain their own beliefs, so Madeline Miller reflects upon key questions of modern society.
The book is about Circe (shocking, I know), and places her within retellings of many Greek myths, both well-known and less so, as she lives out her immortal life. Many of the names will be familiar to even someone with a cursory knowledge of ancient Greek culture, yet there are many who most people will never have heard of. the true beauty of this book is how Miller manages to weave her versions of many stories into one broad, compelling narrative, with Circe at the centre.
At its core, I feel the book is a character study of Circe. It’s hard to describe her personality, as her character development is the key component of the book, and who she starts as is a world away (quite literally) from where she ends up. Yet this development is done masterfully, at a pace so gradual that it was completely unnoticeable as I was reading, yet strikingly obvious now that I am reflecting upon it.
Circe also represents a strong feminist component to the book. She has to endure growing up in a patriarchal society, where the powerful gods take whatever they fancy, willing or not. Later, there is an exploration of what it means to be the woman in a relationship, as well as the ‘purpose’ of a woman’s live and what motherhood entails. Circe easily carries the book by being a deeply complex character who quickly outgrows many of the traditional archetypes that often pen in female characters.
One of my favourite elements of the book was seeing classic myths retold with a new focus on the woman’s perspectives in them. Woman never fared well in myths, often considered untrustworthy or inferior, their views overlooked. Miller works to rectify this, without diminishing the pettiness, tragedy or ignorant stubbornness omnipresent within this type of story. By getting this new view, we get a look at morals for a new age.
Given the prominence of the themes within the novel, it should be no surprise that it felt quite existential. The writing often felt very contemplative, yet made good use of foreshadowing and other literary techniques to keep me interested. Miller crafted a story that was captivating at a surface level, yet was fully of hidden meaning below.
Overall, I’d give it a 6.5 out of 7. As I’ve been writing this review, I realized just how much subtext I missed at first glance. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has an interested in Greek mythology, but I also think it is a tale of female empowerment which i couldn’t fully appreciate, having never lived those experiences. Therefore, I think it’s a great piece of feminist literature.