I have inadvertently read several books inspired by Greek mythology this year, but as I love mythology in general, I certainly don’t mind. I remember hearing great things about Madeline Miller’s debut, Song of Achilles, but never read it, so when her next novel, Circe, popped up in the Book of the Month Club, earlier this year, I was eager to check it out.
Circe, obviously, is the story of Circe, a daughter of Helios. We all know her as the witch who turns men into pigs, a mere episode in Odysseus’ epic journey home to Ithaca. This book takes that episode and expands it into a full exploration of this lesser-known mythological character’s life. It imagines her childhood and a life-changing meeting with Prometheus; her intense first love, Glaucos, and his betrayal; and her creation of the monster Scylla and resulting exile to Aiaia. From there it explores her relationship with “great” men and gods, from Hermes and Odysseus to Daedelus and her role in the birth of the Minotaur. As with most of the literature featuring him, though, Odysseus and his shadow take over in the latter part of the book, as Circe has to manage the long-reaching effects of his time on her island on her, Penelope, and their sons.
I really loved this book. It beautifully gives voice to a character in mythology who so often is reduced to her label of “witch” and her actions’ impact on the men who encounter her, and it does so in gorgeous, swimming, flowing prose. Circe may be born of the sun god, but she is a creature of the earth and sea and sky, and the text helps the reader feel that very intently. The story is delicate and tasteful; nothing is too graphic, though Miller doesn’t necessarily shy away from harsh or negative things. She just presents events through Circe’s distinct lens of being a woman in ancient times. It is a distinctly feminist take on a fascinating character so often portrayed through the male gaze, something that we are starting to see more and more of in literature based in myths, and I appreciate very much the flipping of the perspective to tell a more nuanced, complete story.
The story meandered through time like the immortal Circe is, yet she lives very mortal experiences and emotions, which added to the liquid feel of the text. However, the story does sag in a few places, and it begins to feel long. Maybe that’s on purpose–we feel the weight of the story’s length the way Circe feels the weight of time? Eh, more likely it just needed a little tightening in the last quarter. But honestly, that was my only criticism.
Circe was not a book that knocked my socks off in a big way, but it was a quiet, shimmering book that gets under your skin. I actively recommended to several people while I was reading it, which is not something I often do. I was very impressed with the novel and the author, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Miller’s work.