RAD Book Club’s third title in Series 5 was Circe by American novelist Madeline Miller.

RAD Book Club’s third title in Series 5 was Circe by American novelist Madeline Miller.

Published in 2019, Miller’s second novel gives a vivid, feminist, modern account of the legend of Circe, an enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology. A few of us met to discuss this novel over some delicious Greek biscuits.

Circe, daughter of the Titan Helios, god of the sun, discovers she has the power of witchcraft and the capacity to transform others into monsters. Threatened by her power, Zeus banishes Circe to an island called Aiaia. Once there, Circe has the opportunity to practice her craft and live apart from those who fear her and those who underestimate her. Circe narrates her life story as it crosses paths with many characters from other Greek myths; Helios, Hermes, Prometheus, Glaucus, Scylla, Ariadne, the Minotaur, Daedalus, Icarus, Medea, Odysseus, Athena, Penelope, Telemachus and Telegonus, among others. Miller brings Circe’s story and that of all characters to life in a masterful manner.

Most of us thought that the author gives a brilliant, expressive, immersive account of Circe’s various legends, although two people struggled to engage with the fantasy elements. We found that Miller manages to interweave her story with that of other legends in a cohesive, well-rounded manner. We most enjoyed that the narrative is presented from Circe’s point of view as this let us appreciate the viewpoint of a character who is both an immortal and a woman. Written in an accessible, engaging way, those with little knowledge of Greek mythology said they felt encouraged to read Miller’s other book (‘Song of Achilles’) and about Greek mythology more generally. Among those of us who are familiar with Greek myths, this book has given us an opportunity to revisit some Greek myths from the perspectives of the female characters, attributing different motives for their actions to those given in classical versions. Circe recounts what it is like to be the daughter of a titan in the aftermath of the struggle between gods and titans, a sister, rejected and half-forgotten by her family and with only her magic as protection, a mother, a lover. But Circe also tells us of Ariadne’s sisterly love, Medea’s revengeful intentions, Athena’s stratagems, Penelope’s longing, Pasiphaë’s manipulation, from their own perspectives.

Our main criticism of the book is that this array of stories and legends is told in a way that keeps the reader at arm’s length from the characters which meant that the text failed to involve some of us fully. Some of us even found some parts of the book a bit boring, with some of the ideas contained in it somehow repetitive and, at times, it felt like it was a checklist of names and myths.

This, however, gave us an opportunity to wonder whether a reader would enjoy the book more or less depending on their knowledge of Greek mythology. On the one hand, one might be more invested in the story and appreciate the retelling more if one knew about the characters and stories already. On the other hand, those who did not have much knowledge of the myths already, thought that the feminist perspective provided by an immortal was entertaining enough in its own right but one reader was concerned that they might take away an incorrect version of the classic myths. Despite all this, we appreciated the way fate and chance are presented in the book and also liked that the ethos of the ancient Greeks was preserved and there is no effort by the author to modernise the stories by giving the characters modern sensibilities.

Our score expresses both the quality of the author’s writing and the appeal of the stories contained in the book: 7.5 out of 10.

Book Club will meet again on Tuesday 7 January 2020 at the usual time of 1-2 pm in the Library to discuss the autobiography of Michelle Obama, Becoming.