Madeline Miller returns to the Homeric epics for the inspiration for her second novel, Circe. While the first, The Song of Achilles, focuses on the Iliad, the second turns its attention to stories told through the Odyssey. But it is much more than a simple retelling. Miller’s novel tells the story of Circe, daughter of the sun-god Helios. Shunned by her divine family from birth, Circe is an outsider with a mortal’s voice. When she discovers a power that the other gods fear— witchcraft—she is banished to a remote island. In exile, she develops her arts, becoming more powerful until she can protect her island and those she loves even from the wrath of Athena. Ultimately, however, the real threats to Circe’s happiness come not from the gods, but from her own guilt and fears. Circe encompasses some of most famous myths in Western literature: the punishment of Prometheus; the Minotaur; Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece. And of course Odysseus and his crew, returning home from Troy via Circe’s island.
Miller’s novel is beautifully written and sumptuous in its depiction of a world which seems both a far-off mythical creation and intimately familiar. Circe herself is a sympathetic protagonist, fitting neither into the divine nor the mortal worlds and often seeking what she cannot have. The author is not afraid to debunk the glory of the traditional heroes: Jason is unpleasantly weak, and Odysseus’s famed “trickery” is exposed as little more than treachery and inhumanity.
This is a tremendously enjoyable and emotionally powerful book. It successfully harnesses the themes that have always been present in Greek mythology, and which make these stories sing to us centuries after they were first created: thwarted love, jealousy, passion, bravery and brutality; all the beauty and fragility of human life. Highly recommended.