This month, I’ve been reading Circe by Madeline Miller. The story takes place inside the world of Greek mythology, with many of the well known Titan and Olympian gods making frequent appearances throughout the novel. I have mentioned before that I love Greek mythology. The myths are so witty and they really make you think about all the different aspects of life – karma, fate, creation. If you are new to mythology, then I recommend picking up a little storybook like the one I have pictured above. Mine was bought while I was on holiday in Greece but you can find these stories in books all over the world. They’re such inventive little tales, bright and colourful with a lot of humour thrown in. In Circe, Madeline manages to pick up on these key elements of myth-telling, that make them so attractive to us readers and weave them into her own, unique tale.
We follow the story of the goddess Circe, daughter of Helios. Circe lives with her father and siblings in the house of Helios, where she is constantly outcast as the ugly, odd one out. Throughout the beginning chapters of the book, we learn of her ostracism. How she is hated, mocked, ridiculed and insulted daily by her family, all whilst trying to build an identity for herself. It’s interesting to see how Circe’s character develops, slowly, through all of her hardships. Never being loved by her family leaves her susceptible to falling easily in love with multiple different men throughout the novel. Although she denies her feelings to the reader, describing her relationships with each man as strictly physical, the length at which she talks about each of them reveals to us that she is in love.
Circe is not your typical goddess anyway. She feels emotion when she shouldn’t and she seems to have an affinity for mortal men. Of course, this has happened many times before in Greek mythology, but often the gods and goddesses will use mortals to their advantage. Circe is never capable of being this self-serving. Not only this, but Circe is a witch and has a way with spells that makes her threatening to the gods. The one time she uses her powers selfishly, out of lust, she finds herself banished to the island of Aiaia for eternity, where she must live out the rest of her immortal days in solitude.
It is interesting how even during this banishment, Circe manages to spend a lot of her time with other people – always men. Whether that’s from ships of mortal men looking for refuge on her island or from Hermes, who delights in paying her visits frequently throughout her punishment. But it is when she meets Odysseus that the story really begins to tie itself in knots and it is only until the final few pages that we find Circe untying them – and not in the way that we expect.
There is a lot of lengthy description in this novel, which is very important for setting the historical scene. As a writer myself, I have to applaud Miller on her writing – she has such an enchanting way with words and the setting is beautifully tangible. She ensures that we are well rooted within this mythical world, with no room for doubt. The speech is humorous and thoughtfully written and the interactions with each different character are unique enough to distinguish them as separate entities with a presence in Circe’s story.
At times, I did feel that I was ploughing through Circe’s mind. She tells the reader every one of her thoughts and sometimes these feel long and drawn out. But it reminds us, importantly, that Circe is immortal and also that she has been exiled. Her days are long and drawn out and they always will be. She cannot escape solitude, for fear of the wrath of her father and Zeus. And, if there are no guests on her island, then her only interactions are only with nature and the wildlife.
I really enjoyed this book and the sort of wavering affection that you build for Circe. You go from pitying her, to finding her slightly annoying, to committing yourself to the success of her final quests. Throughout the last 100 pages, where Circe’s life dramatically changes, Miller gives us a much more mature version of Circe and we see a passionate side of her that builds depth to an already evolving character. I’m still thinking about the final twist, which comes surprisingly in the final sentence of the novel. Don’t be tempted to skip ahead! The shock is worth it and the sentiment that you feel with it gives you a sort of pride for making it through Circe’s journey with her.
I can see why this novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I’m almost hoping that someone will make it into a film, as there are so many brilliantly visual scenes that I feel it deserves it. Then again, some of the best books that inspire this longing to see their descriptions lifted off the page and projected onto screen, are perfect because they have been written so vividly. That’s the beauty of writing and sometimes we have to leave that to inspire us as it was intended to – through words.
A truly magical and powerful read and if you get the chance to devour it in a weekend alone, then I highly suggest that you do!