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'The Penelopiad:' A New Look at Homer's Tale

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Margaret Atwood is one of the most admired novelists in North America. Her new book is called "The Penelopiad." Reviewer Alan Cheuse says it's a refreshing retelling of Homer's "Odyssey" from the point of view of the warrior hero's wife.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

`Here is what I did,' Atwood's Penelope tell us. `I set up a large piece of weaving on my loom and said it was a shroud for my father-in-law Laertes since it would be impious of me not to provide a costly winding sheet for him in the event that he should die. Not until this sacred work was finished could I even think of choosing a new husband.' Faithful Penelope. The mortal woman for whom Odysseus spurned offers of immortality and eternal nights of lovemaking with goddesses and witches so that he might return to the one woman he truly desired.

Penelope. I've always been crazy about her. Atwood conducts herself quite cleverly in making her portrait. First of all, she frames the story with a chorus made up of those maids of Penelope who, as Homer portrays it, consorted with the suitors while Odysseus was still making his way back home. The maids sing in counterpoint to Penelope's matter-of-fact voice and lend a hallucinatory strain to a tale already as fantastic as any in the Western tradition.

Along with her presentation of the hallucinatory maids and Penelope's straight talk about her husband, her girlie laments about the ferocious competition of her cousin Helen and her queenly worries about fending off the suitors, Atwood's brilliance emerges in the skillful way she's woven her own research on the anthropological underpinnings of Home's epic into the patterns of her own stylized version of the poem.

If finally this version of Penelope's life doesn't fully shift our own understanding of Odysseus' return, it does make for a fascinating and really attractive version of this old, old story, a creation tale about the founding of our civilization meant to be heard over and over and over. Or as Atwood's Penelope would have it, woven and undone, woven and undone, and woven again.

NORRIS: The book is "The Penelopiad" by Margaret Atwood. Our reviewer is Alan Cheuse. He teaches at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.