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Circe – Madeline Miller (Review)

Circe by Madeline Miller

“When I was born, the word for what I was did not exist.”

Thus we are introduced to yellow-eyed Circe, daughter of the Titan of the Sun, Helios and the nymph Perse, named for her similarity to a hawk. From the beginning, this first born is different and never made to forget her seeming lack of any sort of useful skill as compared to the siblings that follow – Pasiphae, Perses, and Aeetes. Until she discovers the hidden powers flowing through her veins and makes a terrible choice that gets her permanently exiled to the island of Aiaia in the middle of nowhere. There she must make choices, learn more about herself, and hope to find some peace and belonging in her long years of eternal life.

This is her story.

It is fitting that this book follows the publication of Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation of The Odyssey, the first English translation by a woman. Wilson refers to Circe as “the goddess who speaks in human tongues” (in reference to her voice shunned by the Titans, Gods, and Olympians because it sounds too human) and talks about the need to give voice to the women in these stories, whether Penelope, Calypso, or Circe. Her translation lays the foundation, even as Miller spins a three-dimensional character out of a minor player of the Odyssey, and builds thousands of years worth of her internal history. Just as she honours the memory of little-mentioned Patroclus from the Iliad in The Song of Achilles.

“It was my first lesson. Beneath the smooth, familiar face of things is another that waits to tear the world in two.”

Here, she is flawed, naive until the world robs her of it. She is capable of petty jealousy. But, as she grows in her exile and her solitude, she is also shown capable of great love and compassion, of sympathy, even as she suffers heartbreak, pain, and a hundred other human emotions amplified by her divinity. And she finds strength in herself, a persistent iron will and power that is redemptive for one so used and misunderstood.

“But of course I could not die. I would live on, through each scalding moment to the next. This is the grief that makes our kind choose to be stones and trees rather than flesh.”

Through her story, we also get delightful glimpses into other beloved myths and heroes – Odysseus, Ariadne, Daedalus, Medea and Jason – and get to view her interaction with Olympians like Hermes, Apollo, and Athena. But the main narrative thread is of Circe’s journey and it’s never boring; an achievement considering that much of the story takes place on Aiaia where only the wolves, lions and pigs keep our witch company.

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The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller’s debut, was fire and intensity. It was passion and relentless fate. It was emotion that overwhelmed you and engulfed you by the weight of its feeling, its depth, its fleeting but incandescent joy, its searing sorrow.

Circe is calmer without a lack of turmoil, slow-burning, reflective, yet undeniably potent. It suits the narrator’s voice and frees her from the perceptions about her throughout history – that of a feared shrew, a revengeful witch. There is a certain awkwardness in tone at times, especially when narrative styles are mixed, but there is also beauty. The language, when compared to TSOA, is more restrained, but sharper. Refined, but poetic in its raw energy; the recreation of surroundings and rituals lush and potent, especially for the nature of the island and Circe’s methods of witchcraft.

And the best part? We know everything that is going to happen, yet it’s fresh, unexpected and engaging, and we can’t help but root for this complex, compelling minor goddess brought so vividly to life. I couldn’t recommend this author more!

(I won this through Hindustan Times Brunch’s competition earlier this year and would like to thank them and Bloomsbury India for the copy!)


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