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Circe by Madeline Miller

Nothing short of a masterpiece, this is one of the books on the longlist for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. The short list will be out on 29 April.

There were so many things to like about this book. Starting with the beautifully designed cover for the Bloomsbury version, with stunning gold and black design of plants and flowers. Circe is a wonderful book of mythology, mixing the Olympian gods, Titans, and Greek mortals. Circe was a witch, whose power to harness the properties of living things made her different to most of the other heavenly powers. What I liked most about the story was the way we moved through a host of myths and encounter many different stories. Daedalus is there and King Minos and the Minotaur on Crete. Then there is Odysseus, his story is one of the earliest sources for the legend of Circe. What Madeline Miller does is to combine a number of ancient sources to weave her new narrative. Homer tells us that Odysseus and his crew stay on Circe's island for a year, but after that there is little more about what happens once Odysseus returns to Ithaca and his wife Penelope and son Telemachus. The Odyssey ends quite abruptly and presumably Odysseus settles back into like as King. What Miller does is to pick up tales from Roman poets who, much later, credited Odysseus with another son, Telegonus, and brought both Penelope and Telemachus to Circe's island. We see a different end to the tale of Odysseus.

The character of Circe herself develops through the book, growing from the difficult child into the challenging adult and finally into the most powerful of parents. As an immortal Titan, daughter of Helios the sun god, she is imbued with many powers, but it is a long journey for her to find her powers as a witch. The gods are afraid of what she can do, they are not used to harnessing the mix of ancient plant lore with spells and enchantments. When she transforms a nymph into the hideous six headed monster Scylla, it is clear that Circe's knowledge has become a curse. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia, to live alone except for the animals that she naturally attracts - lions, sheep, wolves and pigs. Much of the first half of the book is Circe growing into her powers, grinding flowers, bark and roots to make salves and medicines. She is immortal and has all the time in the world to learn these skills.

But Circe is not always alone on her island. The god Hermes is a frequent visitor. Always on the move "picking up gossip as hems gather mud." Her link to events in the rest of the world. A strong theme of sewing and weaving runs through the book, echoes of women's work in those days. When eventually crews of men start to turn up on the island, having become lost at sea, Circe describes her feelings, "I felt a warmth run through me. My fingers itched as if for needle and thread. Here was something torn that I could mend." But as soon as these men learn that she is alone, with no lord to protect her, they try to take advantage. She learns to drug them and turn them into swine. They watch her from their pens, and if they happen to escape they rush for the tall sea cliffs and throw themselves off to escape the life on all fours. Circe is a powerful woman, she even pokes fun at the poets who will later sing her tale, "Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of the poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep."

The visit of Odysseus is different, he is not like other men, and after he has gone Circe discovers that she will bear his child, Telegonus. Motherhood changes her, gives her another priority than herself, and makes her more powerful. She must stand against the goddess Athena, to protect her son. She must devise spells that hide the island from sight and keep the Olympians away. The final quarter of the book, as Telegonus grows towards manhood and Penelope and Telemachus come to live on Circe's island, are notable for their dialogue and story-telling. There is so much power in the speeches, so many different points of view being explored and so many twists in the narrative. I really loved these pages, they were astonishing in their beauty.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson


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