No man's land: "Circe" by Madeline Miller

Book: Circe by Madeline Miller

Release date: April 10, 2018

Pages: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Genre/category: Fantasy, mythology, historical fiction

Rating: ★★★★★

I remember loving Greek mythology and The Odyssey in high school, but even then, I thought Odysseus was a total fuckboy. Like, sure, he was an epic hero, but he was also just a trash man who did trash things like killing his servants and pissing Poseidon off and having goddesses as side-pieces. And that's one of many things this retelling of Greek myths gets so right: the king of Ithaca doesn't come out looking too good.

"Is THIS your king?"

In Circe, the titular character is the neglected half-nymph daughter of Helios, god of the sun. Her desperate loneliness triggers a series of quiet rebellions that eventually lead to her exile. There, on the island of Aiaia, she nurtures her natural gift for witchcraft and is visited by gods, mortals and heroes.

This book captivated me. Miller's writing is emotional and philosophical, yet grounded in the visual and tangible. Circe's transformation over thousands of years, from loveless child to hardened sorceress, to a complex woman fully owning her place in the world, is heightened by her divinity and the epic stakes in her story. But it's a story many women will see themselves in.

My whole life, I had waited for tragedy to find me. I never doubted that it would, for I had desires and defiance and powers more than others thought I deserved, all the things that draw the thunderstroke.

I love retellings. And I especially love the concept of a retelling from the point of view of a secondary character. My limited knowledge and memory of mythology in some ways enhanced my experience of the novel, because I couldn't predict how some events would turn out, or I remembered just enough about characters to make their cameos feel like a treat.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

Miller adheres pretty closely to the old stories, but subverts or elaborates on aspects of them in really clever ways. While we do see Odysseus, and his relationship with Circe sets up some pivotal plot points, this goes far outside the scope of his famous story. We meet Prometheus, Daedalus and his son Icarus, Jason and Medea, Hermes, the Minotaur, Scylla, and others.

Both Circe's isolation and her interactions with mythical characters made me think a lot about connections, and about how everyone is the main character of their own story while playing a supporting role in everyone else's. In even the most seemingly insignificant moments of connection with someone, you become part of their story. Sometimes that influence is much more consequential. But so much of Circe's story is about being alone, and about finding what your life means to you and you alone. I loved how this book played with those themes.

I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.

I'm not a big rereader, but this book had a major impact on me. I think it might become one of those touchstone books that you reread every so often, when life milestones have changed you in some way and you want to see how you respond to something you loved now that you've added some new layer to your experiences. This epic tale of womanhood, with all its pain and all its pleasure, deserves to be sung about like any battle-forged hero.

TW: Sexual assault, rape, violence