Circe
Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury
352pp
Hardback, £16.99

Another new look at an age-old tale comes from Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles, an award-winning reworking of the story of Patroclus and his relationship with the leading man of Homer's Iliad.

In Circe, Miller turns her gaze on another Homeric character who plays second fiddle to an epic hero: namely the witch who turns Odysseus' men into pigs when the wanderer lands on her island Aiaia during his voyage home to Ithaca. While in The Children of Jocasta, Natalie Haynes looks at mortals and their dealing with the gods from a flesh-and-bone, human point of view, Miller sets out to capture the divine, with magic, monsters and immortality all playing a part in this intriguing ethereal narrative. Circe is the divine daughter of sun-god Helios; her name means 'hawk' and she has yellow, birdlike eyes. Mere mortals, according to the protagonist's mother, are 'like savage bags of rotten flesh'; nevertheless Circe has a number of close encounters with them, involving a wide range of emotions from love and reverence, to fear and pity.

Our heroine is known to many through her memorable, but relatively brief, appearance in Homer's Odyssey, although she is often lumped together with the nymph Calypso. This imaginative novel tells Circe's rich story as a whole, delving deep, first into her backstory and then into the aftermath of Odysseus' sojourn on Aiaia.

Miller does this intriguing figure justice. She is not cast just as a languid enchantress lolling around on a deserted island waiting for Odysseus to turn up, but as a young woman coming to grips with her abilities, a witch with a particular skill for invoking transformation, a powerful pharmakis.

Lucia Marchini

 

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