How do you begin to describe a book that you loved? I have this problem with every positive review, but none so much as Circe.
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child–not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power–the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
TW: Self harm, rape
This isn’t my first rodeo with Madeline Miller. I read Song of Achilles and enjoyed the characters and emotions in that book. Reading that book just felt like a whole bunch of emotions dumped on my head. But reading Circe felt like being a fly on the wall witnessing a character grow, evolve, and learn new lessons.
I loved two main things about Circe and that was main character herself and the retelling/Greek mythology aspect.
Circe made my heart hurt. There was this painful and open vulnerability about her. I had this simultaneous impression that being somewhat divine would be great (in theory) and also that the gods and goddesses make for awful family members. They are cruel and apathetic – a dangerous combination – and they only understand power and the threatening of the removal of that power.
And Circe grows up in that. She is ridiculed, harassed, threatened, and she constantly feels inferior and worthless. My heart aches for her because isn’t there a moment in your life where you too felt just so out of place? Whether it be your body, your family, your community, a time period where nothing felt right and you felt this keening aching sense of not belonging? Faced with this, Circe is a survivor. And she has to be.
Circe makes this quintessential human mistakes – falling in love with the wrong person, sacrificing our happiness for someone else, a dilemma to tell the truth – all these situations where we can see deeply empathize with her. What makes her experience more is that she struggles to be human and fallible in a world that seeks to pave over (or kill) mistakes and relishes in sacrifice.
And that’s where she gets me. She is a powerful woman who is isolated by her family and feels really like she doesn’t belong anywhere. Circe makes mistakes and she pays dearly for them, but she also gains wisdom and learns to grow – to play the game of the gods. Because of this, there are really great questions asked about redemption, forgivness, revenge, monstrous women, and expectations.
(I initially only wrote the first paragraph, and then said hold up. I needed a whole new section to talk about powerful women).
What surprised me is that I loved seeing Penelope in this book. Even more so, Circe is full of powerful women. Even monstrous women. We have herself, her mother, her sister, Penelope, Medea, and Scylla. Each of these women look at power differently. They look at love and motherhood, sisterhood, family with a unique perspective. And since I adore the idea of ‘monstrous women’ this was really important and meaningful to me. Are women punished for their power? Because we live in a society with a set idea of how women ought to behave. How they ought to be. And what happens to all these others, who live beyond the fringes? To the exiled women.
There are so many things I love about Circe as a retelling. Firstly, it’s written almost like Circe is looking back at her life and I adore when novels do that. I love this introspective reflective tone and insight that looking back on our life brings. We are able to recognize those moments of naivety, when we believed we knew what we were doing even though we only did what we were expected to. It’s that turning point of belief – to see clearly that we are walking down a path we don’t remember setting forth on.
Secondly, as a retelling of Circe, I think it does a phenomenal job. I knew nothing about her really, but this book brings life to a lesser known story. At the same time, Miller brings in so many other figures of mythology – Daedalus, Odysseus, the Minotaur, and Scylla. The stories come to life and intertwine together.
(Another point to this aspect is that there’s almost a self-reflexive look at legends in the book. We witness the ‘truths’ of the story, and watch as they grow larger than life, as flaws are erased out, and morals dilemmas are smoothed away. One has to wonder if the greatest legends are borne of lies – do we only begin to remember something when it has been embellished beyond recognition? In a retelling with such a prominent history, it is worth thinking about what the kernel of truth is behind the legend – the woman behind the mask, or in this case, the woman behind the witch).
Circe is emotional, much like Miller’s debut, but it transcends it delivering us a moving account of a powerful woman who must not only discover her own power, but her own fate as well. Even more so, Circe is a beautifully written book. There were numerous quotes that moved me, forced me to stop and highlight, and that I would frame on the wall. This is an entirely different being than her first book and if The Song of Achilles was a bright light, I think this is more like a flickering flame – twisting and turning, showing us deeper and more complex shadows on the walls.
Make sure to check out Circe for yourself on Goodreads.