One of the first books published by Canongate for its ambitious Myths series, The Penelopiad is part of the literary tradition of re-telling myths – our most enduring stories – from the perspectives of its female characters.
Traditionally, one thinks of Odysseus’s story in terms of his experiences in the Trojan War, which he got called away to fight in. In The Penelopiad, Atwood looks at the one who got left behind – his wife, Penelope, who recounts the story of her life: her childhood in Sparta, her marriage to Odysseus and their move to Ithaca, and her life without Odysseus, in which she must fend off eager suitors and raise their son Telemachus alone.
After dealing with his long absence, Penelope must then contend with his return, when he not only kills off all of Penelope’s suitors, but also her maids, whom he mistrusts. In between Penelope’s own testimony, her twelve maids perform the role of the Greek chorus, and add their own perspectives to the story.
In an interview about the retelling, Atwood said of Penelope, “She is speaking from the world of the dead to the world of the living. She wants to tell 'you' that she's not what people thought, that other people had told stories about her, but now she is down in the underworld she doesn't care about social convention, she's going to tell her own story. She lives or dies depending upon which version of the myth you are reading or listening to.”
Published in 2005.