Book Review: Circe

Love, longing, myth, magic and power

It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it I no longer did.

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My first few blogs will all be from the woman’s prize for fiction 2019.

I cannot even begin to tell you how excited I am to be finally writing this blog post! And so excited to be beginning with Circe which has got to be one of my favourite books of the year. When I decided to start this blog I was faced with the daunting task of choosing the first book I’d write about, but having picked up this latest offering from Madeline Miller it inspired me to begin reading some of the shortlist for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I have always been drawn to books written by women or with strong female protagonists and Circe, like all the books on the list, ticks both those boxes with a resounding flourish.

Circe tells the story of the Greek goddess (or witch) who features in various classic texts. This modern retelling puts Circe in the centre, rather than being a bit part in the tale of The Odyssey. Banished by her father – the god Helios – to the island of Aiaia she discovers her talents for casting spells, working with herbs, taming wild animals and a flare for transformation. Strange, powerful and an outsider she begins to crave eternal life. Her relationship with mortals is as troublesome as those with her fellow gods. And then she encounters Odysseus for whom she will risk everything.

The whole novel is wonderfully written. I had worried that my lack of knowledge when it comes to classics (and truth be told my struggle to fully engage and enjoy them when I attempted) would be a hindrance but it really wasn’t. The story feels thoroughly modern thanks to Miller’s beautifully simple and elegant prose. While you never forget that you’re reading a story set in the ancient world it becomes a mere backdrop to a tale with very modern themes. For this reason it did remind me of Margaret Atwood!

Not surprisingly then this book is a total celebration of women and their power. It is Circe’s love of mortals which makes her weak but also helps her to find her magic. Alone on her island she carries out traditionally women’s work like gardening and cooking the ingredients to make her spells. However, in the end this work makes her more powerful than the men who come to threaten her (no spoilers so I will stop that thought right there).

Circe is a really likeable character and despite her violence, a part of her story that Miller could not ignore, you root for her. I think this is because in this novel she is the main character rather than a bit character in a man’s story. Instead the men plan the smaller parts and are there to progress her story, for example Odysseus and Hermes.

I never forgot that I was reading something set in the ancient world but the language and themes so were relevant and thoroughly modern that I plain forgot. That being said I never felt that this was jarring (as I found with another of the books I have read from the Women’s Prize for Fiction list, but more on that in the next blog).  

My final thoughts on Circe? It is a book about loneliness, longing and love. It is about a woman’s sacrifice and endurance, but it is also a tale of female power and our ability to prevail without compromising all the things which make us female such as our compassion and fragility. Often as women we have to give up a part of ourselves to succeed in a male dominated world, just as Circle does.

Have you read Circe? What did you think? Should I read some more Madeline Miller or do you have some suggestions of similar books I might like?

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Circe”

  1. […] Read something by one of the giants on the genre: This tip will rely a little on you having a sense of what kind of historical fiction you think you might be interested in, for example if you adored learning about the courts of ye olde England at school then maybe the likes of Phillipa Gregory, Alision Weir or Hilary Mantel might be for you. Like a feisty female lead? Historian Kate Williams might have something for you. Want to go further back? Why not try one of Madeline Miller’s books (you can read my reviews here and here).  […]

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