Once Upon a Time: The Penelopiad

Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad


Today’s Armchair BEA topic is Character Chatter. Here are my thoughts on a book that reimagines some of the most famous characters in literature.

The Penelopiad is a decidedly odd little book. It’s a riff on the story of faithful Penelope from the Odyssey, who waited twenty years for her husband to return from his travels (and his amours) while fending off a pack of rapacious suitors. It takes an aspect of the story usually considered a minor detail — the hanging of twelve of Penelope’s maids for sleeping with said suitors — and makes it the subject of a sort of literary theme and variations, incorporating poetry, music-hall style comic songs, feminist criticism, and even a court transcript, which interrupt Penelope’s own first-person narrative (delivered from Hades).

The maids never get individual voices, speaking rather as a chorus that echoes the use of such satirical relief as a counterpoise to Greek tragedy. As they contrast with and comment on Penelope’s version of the tale, they cast doubt on her motives and leave us with unresolved questions about what really happened. As Penelope says herself, along with her husband she is one of the great liars of all time, after all.

This is a book by Margaret Atwood, so it’s sly and witty and gracefully written. It didn’t quite satisfy me as a reading experience, though, and I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps because the interposed chorus sections sometimes felt too contrived, their stylistic changes showing off Atwood’s virtuosity for its own sake. The highlighting of issues of gender and class was somewhat heavy-handed, and the mixture of ancient and modern idioms sometimes jarring rather than amusing.

Still, Atwood is nothing if not a compelling storyteller, and the questions she raises are worth asking. Her attempt to give voice to the voiceless women of one of our foundational Western myths is admirable, and worth any reader’s time. I’d love to go back to the sources (particularly The Odyssey and Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths), and then read it again and see what I think.

I’m counting The Penelopiad for the “Myth” category in the Once Upon a Time challenge, Quest the Second.


Pieces of Truth: Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

Although there were many books I should have been reading and other things I should have been doing, once I started Alias Grace they all went by the wayside; I could not put it down. The subject matter is sensational in itself: the real-life case of 16-year-old housemaid Grace Marks, accused in 1843 of collaborating with her lover to murder her employer and his housekeeper (who also happened to be his lover). Atwood goes beyond the exploitative and voyeuristic thrills of such a story to give us a convincing, yet tantalizingly ambiguous portrait of a notorious woman that shakes up our assumptions about gender, class, sexuality, and morality.

The main thread of the story takes place several years into Grace’s incarceration — her death sentence as an accessory to murder was
commuted to a life sentence, which many sympathizers tried to overturn further. A young doctor with an interest in new scientific ideas about the mind is interviewing Grace, trying to bring unconscious material to light that might exonerate her. As she tells her story (with what degree of veracity is never entirely certain), his own life begins to unravel in a disturbing way.

In this murder mystery turned inside out, the question of “whodunit” becomes more than an effort to point the finger at a guilty party and feel cleansed thereby of our own misdeeds. Who does our deeds, really? What is the nature of the human mind and soul? What is happening in the shadows of our consciousness, where we scarcely dare to venture? Through an assemblage of various voices, pieced together like one of the quilts that Grace excels at creating, a picture starts to emerge, but it does not give us a fixed and definitive “answer.” Not unlike one of those quilt designs that can be seen in multiple ways — boxes or windows? — it shifts before our sight, as multi-layered and difficult to grasp as human awareness itself.

Thanks to Girl with Her Head in a Book for inviting me to join in a readalong of this terrific book. If you decide to pick it up as well, just be sure to set aside a couple of days — once you fall under the spell of Atwood’s lucid and compelling storytelling, you’re going to find it hard to attend to anything else for a while.


From Austen to Atwood: The art of the Balbusso sisters

Eugene Onegin
The Handmaid’s Tale

The artwork of Anna and Elena Balbusso first caught my eye in the Folio Society catalog, with their stunning illustrations for two very different books, Alexander Pushkin’s classic novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin and Margaret Atwood’s modern dystopian nightmare The Handmaid’s Tale. Then I noticed that they were the cover artists for two other books on my TBR list, The Goblin Emperor and Hild. And then I saw that they were illustrating original fantasy stories  for Tor.com, and producing a new edition of Pride and Prejudice for Folio…quite a range right there.

Pride and Prejudice

What all these illustrations have in common is their formal sense of composition, attention to positive and negative space (often making use of silhouettes), and masterly use of color. Often they mix strong, simplified shapes with brushy passages that bring movement and liveliness to the image.


The Too-Clever Fox

The Balbusso sisters bring a bold, stylized approach to the problem of illustrating fiction, which is the question of how to bring out both the visual and the psychological aspects of the story, the outer and the inner. To this end, they play with the juxtaposition of diverse images, frequently combining human figures with elements from the natural world. Their ability to blur the lines between two realms, while keeping each one crystal clear, is one of their most compelling talents.


Who are these amazing twin illustrators of everything from Austen to Atwood? You can find some answers in this Folio Society interview. (I like the part where they explain how they started working together — it seems that it was just too confusing for their clients to interview identical twins separately.) As they are based in Milan, much of their work has appeared in European publications. This includes several more illustrated editions of classic English novels (such as Northanger Abbey) for a language-learning line, which ironically are not available in English-speaking countries, though I dearly wish they were.

Northanger Abbey

In a time when so many loud and fast-moving images are competing for our attention, it’s refreshing to find artists who can create a perfectly composed page that is arresting in its quietness. I’ll be looking forward eagerly to their next production, whatever it may be.

You can find many more beautiful illustrations by the Balbusso sisters as well as news and information on their website.