Review: Madeline Miller “Circe”

This review first appeared in the issue of “Literary Guide” (Nr 2, March 2023), released by the National Library of Latvia on April 6, 2023, in Latvian. For the material to be available in English as well, I’m re-posting it on the Sea Library’s blog.

When American writer Madeline Miller’s novel “Circe” was first published in English in 2018, I drank it like the nectar of the gods – quickly and with an intoxicating aftertaste. Now, when reading in Latvian (translated by Anete Kona in 2023), the effect is the same. The translation is excellent. It would be difficult to read more slowly because the language itself flows smoothly – short sentences, bright epithets, an abundance of smells, tastes, and tactile senses. The pages are torn as if blown by the wind, and the reader literally finds herself there, in the epicenter of the ancient Greek gods – she sees, hears, almost feels the passions described, also loneliness, searching, fulfillment on her own skin. Fantastic – that’s an accurate description because the characters are also like that: Olympian gods, nymphs and nereids, beasts, heroes, and some ordinary mortals as well.

But in the center of the novel – a female goddess: atypical, misunderstood, exiled, stubborn, curious, strong – Circe, the daughter of the sun god Helios. A sorceress with amber eyes, a faithful lion at her side, and a bag of herbal tinctures gathered in the night dew.

The epic “Odyssey” by the ancient Greek poet Homer, which is the oldest surviving literary work of Western culture – written long before the Bible -–is the hero Odysseus’ difficult journey home after the Trojan War (which is described in Homer’s epic “Iliad”). Odysseus sails across the sea to the longed-for Ithaca, where his wife Penelope and son Telemachus await him faithfully. Along the way, he has to step out on the shores of various strange islands inhabited by mythical inhabitants, he has to fight with terrible creatures, and so the years pass. For seven of them, Odysseus and his ship’s crew – or what’s left of it – are delayed on another island, where the goddess Circe (also known as Calypso) lives.

The novel “Circe” is largely based on the events sung about in Homer’s epic, but written from Circe’s point of view, where the heroic adventurer Odysseus is only one of her lovers, albeit one of the most memorable.

There is no shortage of women in ancient Greek myths and legends, and yet the point of view is distinctly masculine. In recent years, there has been a trend in the Anglophone world where women writers and translators have begun to rewrite the ancient Greek heritage. Miller’s “Circe” is one of the vivid examples. It is joined by Natalie Haynes’ novel “A Thousand Ships” (2019), which focuses on the Trojan War and the lives of women in its crossfire and after the war, and the same author’s novel “Pandora’s Jar” (2020), a retelling of ancient Greek myths. Pat Baker has also chosen the Trojan War; her novel “The Silence of the Girls” (2018) is a female version of the Iliad. While Jennifer Saint’s novel “Ariadne” (2021) is about the Cretan princesses, daughters of the fearsome Minotaur – Ariadne, who falls in love with the Athenian prince Theseus, and her sister Phaedra. There are already more than ten such novels published in less than a decade. Similarly, Homer’s epics, which were previously translated by men (they can also be read in Latvian in the translation of Augustus Ģiezens), are being translated into English for the first time by women. Emily Watson’s translation of “The Odyssey”, released in 2018, is praised as one of the best, and in 2016, Caroline Anderson translated the Iliad.

An HBO series based on the motifs of the novel “Circe” is currently being prepared. The juicy, lively, also intense plot is suitable material for it, and the passions and problems of the characters are timeless and understandable (especially when the goddess tries to take care of her newborn all alone). However, the book itself is also captivating enough to flash scenes of the imagination in the mind long after reading, like a movie that is difficult to turn off. I still wander on my own enchanted island with a lion at my side, looking for what an immortal goddess most desires.

You can borrow “Circe” in English and Latvian from the Sea Library. Also Homer’s epics in Latvian and in English (translated by Emily Watson and Caroline Anderson. I can also suggest borrowing Anderson’s book “The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War). Natalie Hayne’s “A Thousand Ships” is also in the Sea Library. But all the other books mentioned here are sadly not in my collection. If you want to donate a book to the Sea Library, please contact me.

Lasi manu apskatu par Medlinas Milleres romānu “Kirke” latviski “Literatūras ceļveža” 2023. gada 2. numurā.

Photos: Anna Iltnere / Sea Library

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