Wily Odysseus, King of Ithaca, wed Penelope, then a few years later sailed off to the Trojan War with every man of fighting age. Eighteen years later, one hundred suitors camp out in the palace to win the hand of the mourning Penelope. She is weaving a funeral shroud for Laertes, promising to choose when it’s complete, but unravelling nightly. To choose one suitor means bloodshed and civil war. This queen possesses the cunning and wit of her presumed dead husband. North gives a fresh voice and point of view to the tale narrated by Hera, goddess of women and marriage. Poets sing the praises of heroes in epic ballads, ignoring the women. The stunning cover in black and ochre, reminiscent of Ode on a Grecian Urn, sets the tone.
Women shine in this tribute, the jealousies of the goddesses adding drama. Athena, protector of Odysseus, watches over his son Telemachus training as a warrior; Artemis teaches the women to fight plundering raiders. The prose loses power, detracting from the classical nature, when Hera speaks in colloquial language. Penelope seems a raven-haired Princess Grace with her patience, quiet strength, and regal dignity. It took me several pages to become involved with so many foreign-sounding names and a large cast of counsellors, suitors, maids. It is rife with political machinations and no love story. What drives the plot is the women defending their queen and island. When Penelope’s cousin Clytemnestra flees, having killed her brute of a husband, and her children, Orestes and Electra, arrive to avenge his death, an intriguing subplot is set up, adding tension to an already fraught situation. Penelope reflects on destiny: “we have no power over our destinies” and “queens of Greece are not given many choices that are their own.”