Book review: Circe by Madeline Miller

They say that writers should read widely, so not all my book reviews will be crime, though bloodshed may prove to be a common theme. Recently I dived into Greek Mythology. Madeline Miller’s Circe is a feminist spin on the epic tale of the immortal nymph sea witch by that name. Circe appeared as a minor character in the Homeric poem, The Odyssey.

Circe, the protagonist is the daughter of Helios, the sun god. As a child she is made brutally aware of her inferior status by her family. She was not born a god, is plain to the eye, and has the voice of a mortal. In her youth she was tormented by her siblings and barely seen by her parents.

I asked her how she did it once, how she understood the world so clearly. She told me that it was a matter of keeping very still and showing no emotions, leaving room for others to reveal themselves.

In coming to know love, jealousy and rage, Circe discovers her sorcerer powers, which she unleashes on her sister, a beautiful sea nymph, and the object of her envy. As punishment she is exiled to a picturesque, unpeopled island called Aiaia by her father.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Circe eventually comes to revel in her solitude and spends her time developing her occult arts and witchcraft, and taming the animals of Aiaia for company.

This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

It is on the island, surrounded by tame wolves and lions and pigs – the latter formerly sailors who she turned to swine after they tried to attack her – that Odysseus comes across Circe. He becomes her lover and she bares his child.

I was captured by Miller’s lush poetic prose, which is like reading a song. Her reimagining of the myth brings one of the women from the original tale into the light. Her work was criticised by a few crusty old blokes for historical inaccuracy, perhaps because they prefer the original misogynist fantasy, but I found a beautiful remake of Homers epic poem in Circe. The novel gives a nod to other myths as well, including Daedalus and Icarus; Medea and Jason with the Golden Fleece.

I loved Circe’s chutzpah, she is a woman who will not be silenced and turns an ancient tale of female subjugation into one that is teeming with contemporary reverberations of empowerment and courage. Circe is Miller’s second novel and rivals her first, The Song of Achilles, a stirring reimagining of another of Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad. The Song of Achilles received the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012.

I highly recommend Circe, which was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. It’s a particularly good read for writers who seek inspiration, and to broaden their writing technique, style, and craft skills.

No wonder I have been so slow, I thought. All this while, I have been a weaver without wool, a ship without the sea. Yet now look where I sail.

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