Book Review: Circe [by Madeline Miller]

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All I really knew about Circe were a couple of disconnected myths and stories (primarily that she turned Odysseus’ men into pigs) so in that way, this novel was interesting for me. This was a buddy read with Anna and we had fun dissecting several elements of the novel as we read.

The novel begins in Circe’s childhood; born of Titan sun god Helios and nymph Perse, she is immortal yet, to her family, she possesses few of the gifts of immortality. She is scorned and raised with the knowledge of her inferiority (she is considered more human than goddess). From her childhood, we move on to her years of exile on the island of Aiaia, a place where most of the residual action occurs.

Miller seems to stick quite firmly to the prevalent narrative that the classical gods are unfeeling, narcissistic, self-obsessed and arrogant. Circe herself as a character is difficult to pin down in the early chapters, she is more human in her emotional depth and her empathy, but her character remains hazy for quite a while (at least to me). Miller sets up a kingdom of gods which does not value nuances, but Circe very much inhabits a more ‘grey’ space, in that it’s not that she doesn’t do bad things, but she definitely takes the blame a couple of times.

In a way, my major issue with this novel is really something which I can’t fully fault Miller for. There is no central conflict. It’s largely an episodic detailing of Circe’s life, start to as-far-as-it-gets. One major event after another gets dealt with, we learn about her family, about how she ends up on the island of Aiaia, the (few) people she meets, those she comes to love, and the tragedies in her life that make her a very sympathetic character indeed. In the course of retelling Circe’s life Miller deals with some very difficult subjects, and she does so very capably and without unnecessary drama.

Probably the greatest tool Miller has in her arsenal is her beautiful prose. Rich with imagery, it’s probably (for me) the only thing that keeps the novel going. There’s an abundance of scenic lushness on Circe’s island and Miller sketches it with an easy, deft hand. However, while I think her prose is lovely, I don’t think it’s quite enough to sustain a novel like this. The further I read the more I thought something definitive was going to happen, something that would perhaps be the concern of the rest of the novel, but Miller deals with one episode after another as they feature in Circe’s life. Some characters appear once or twice and never recur. While this is not entirely boring, it’s difficult to sustain interest. The thing I can say is that the further the novel goes, the more emotionally dense it becomes. While Circe’s character never appears wholly clear to me, we are able to see a depth in her emotional response, which complicates as she moves from childhood to adulthood. We see her anger at the gods, her bleak sense of solitude, her uncertain feelings for men who visit her island, her reflections on her past actions, and perhaps most powerfully, in some of the most poetic sections of the novel, her view on the luminous nature of humanity, as opposed to the curse of godliness.

Every moment mortals died, by shipwreck and sword, by wild beasts and wild men, by illness, neglect and age. It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke. Meanwhile every petty and useless god would go on sucking down the bright air until the stars went dark.

I would not really dissuade anyone from reading this. I think it’s an important novel for a genre which hasn’t really been reinterpreted that often in popular literature, aside from Rick Riordan’s novels, which, being for a different audience altogether, don’t take a very complicated tack. My disappointment with Miller lies in the fact that she primarily didn’t make creative use of the myths available, she told them as she saw them, which perhaps would be fine if she were writing some years ago when the concept of a retelling wasn’t as popular as it is now. I think now, the standards are higher, and I expected at least to see some manipulation of the original source. A lot of blanks left in by the myths she followed without question, even if they didn’t make that much sense (however, that’s a minor quirk so I won’t nitpick). And I think more than my contention with its episodic nature (which, I guess, as a novel inspired by the classical epic, it has cause to use that feature), I’m a bit disappointed by the fact that she made no great attempt to use the existing myths more imaginatively. Largely I think her engaging prose just about made it interesting enough for me, but I think today you need to have both a well-plotted as well as a well-written novel; one or the other is taking a risk.

All quotes attributed to the respective work.

2 Replies to “Book Review: Circe [by Madeline Miller]”

  1. This has been on my to read list. It’s good to know that the retelling wasn’t a creative interpretation of the myth, so I can adjust my expectations accordingly.

    Thank you for sharing, and also for following my own review blog!

    Liked by 1 person

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