Anyone remember Odysseus? Yes, that's the chappie. Alias Ulysses. Son of Laertes, father of Telemachus. Husband of Penelope. Got married then immediately dashed off to swash a bit of buckle in the Trojan Wars (Helen, Paris, Troy...), invented the Trojan Horse. As I was saying, got married and then swanned off for ten years to the siege of Troy and then another ten years running around the Med. slaying giants and sleeping with goddesses - a veritable 'odyssey'.
So for 20 years, wifey stayed home and managed the kingdom and a rather volatile teenage son (many single mothers will know how tedious that is). Later, she was assailed by suitors (read fortune-hunters), and, with a mind just as inventive as Odysseus', kept them at bay with a now-famous now-you-see-it-now-you-don't shroud-weaving trick.
Not much is said about Penelope in Greek myth, and in fact, what is said is contradictory. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood laughingly plugs the gap.
The story of Penelope's 20 years sans mari is told by Penelope herself from Hades, with the interjections of the Twelve Maid(en)s, whom Odysseus (or perhaps it was Telemachus) hanged on his return, in the form of a chorus inspired by the forms of Greek tragedy.
The book is short, entertaining, witty and very, very ascerbic. I particularly enjoyed Atwood's characterisation of Helen, who was Penelope's supernaturally beautiful cousin. I always had a sneaking suspicion she would have been ... not very nice.
And the doubts Atwood casts on the literal truth of the Odysseus myth. Did he really slay a Cyclops and lie nightly in the arms of a goddess? Or did he knock over a one-eyed landlord in a sailor's bar-brawl and shack up with the beautiful madam of a high-class brothel. For me, Atwood's version is infinitely more enjoyable than Homer's!
A thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking book from an author about whom there is nothing one can say except "wow" (every time). Oh yes, and congratulations to Canongate Books who have made this a beautiful object to handle as well as to read.