REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

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Circe by Madeline Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages

Release date: 19 April 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

“It was their fate, as Prometheus had told me, the story that they all shared. No matter how vivid they were in life, no matter how brilliant, no matter the wonders they made, they came to dust and smoke.”

For thousands of years, classical mythology has captivated popular imagination. Out of the myriad of traditions all across the Western world, it’s Greek mythology that orators reference, novels retell, and schools teach children. I grew up halfway across the world from Greece, having never so much as set foot in Europe, and learned those tales almost as early as I could read. Greek mythology has, ironically despite its exemplification of a society that we should never seek to replicate, inspired countless dramas and adaptations.

Of these, Madeline Miller’s takes on the mythology have to be amongst the most inspired and inspiring. Beautiful and heartfelt, Circe has rightly been called “a love letter to the first witch in literature”. A love letter it is, but never one that becomes too bedazzled by its subject to display the blemishes of her life. Miller is less apologist for the witch of Aiaia and more gritty journalist resolved to bring her true tale to light.

As a result, she omits nothing of Circe’s journey: from surreal girlhood and loss of innocence to motherhood and painful lessons learned, to her final realisation of what she wants to be. What an empowering journey. It’s a journey that takes centuries or even millennia, but how many of us can say that we’ve learned all we need in our few decades of life? As Miller shows again and again, immortality cannot in good conscience be equated with wisdom. No, Circe accumulates wisdom the only way we do. In words more eloquent than mine: Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Necessary as it may be, failure incurs a steep cost, steeper still in the world of the gods. Miller paints the tortures of Greek mythology in grotesque fashion, writing Prometheus’s punishment and Scylla’s monstrosity as poignantly as the exotic beauty and sheer otherness of Aiaia. All of this is witnessed and faithfully given life by Circe’s voice, which is one of a kind. Transforming from guileless outcast to hardened sorceress, her willpower in the face of unimaginable cruelty is as admirable as the cruelties are tragic.

Miller vindicates the much maligned, at least in popular memory, Circe while remaining remarkably faithful to the Greek canon. Few events occur in Circe which have no basis in ancient texts, and even readers who have decent familiarity with the classics may be surprised by where Circe’s story takes her. The infamous turning men into pigs is a tiny, insignificant part of Circe’s immortal life; poetically, Miller relegates Odysseus to two chapters of Circe’s novel to mirror Circe’s confinement to two books of the Odyssey.

Circe’s presence in Greek mythology extends beyond that epic. Her impact is explored with regard to such well-known tales as the transformation of Scylla, the flight of Jason and Medea and the ill-fated quest of Telegonus, her son with Odysseus. These and many more vivid myths are woven in deftly, and the ways in which mythology was adapted for Miller’s rendition make for almost as interesting reading as the book itself.

What takes Circe a step up from pure, if astoundingly well-written, regurgitation is the same as elevates other fine retellings: Miller’s instinct for knowing exactly when to diverge from the canon, and her confidence in executing it fearlessly. When she has to tell the other side of the story that isn’t from the perspective of a man in power, she goes for the throat. You’ll find no temptress reduced to cowering before the hero’s sword, the scene in the Odyssey that transforms Circe from a powerful threat to another of Odysseus’s conquests. Not so in Circe, where it’s finally time we hear the witch’s point of view.

This novel really is, if not flawless, as close as I believe I’ll read. Circe is six years’ labour of love from one of the most talented writers alive, and I have neither the desire nor the faintest inkling of how to begin taking it apart. Literary and lyrical yet cinematically immersive, Circe deserves its place as one of the year’s most acclaimed books. I would have read it all in one go if I hadn’t needed sleep.

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