Published: 10th April 2018
Genre: Mythological Fiction
Trigger warnings: Attempted rape, animal death
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.
This is a book that has a unique and effective way of embracing you in the mind of a character. From beginning to end, I was carried along through infinity by Circe, who is compellingly imagined and portrayed by Madeline Miller throughout her divine journey. It is a book unlike any other I have read; an odyssey in itself.
As the title suggests, this is a story that completely revolves around Circe herself, and it sweeps you away effortlessly as she encounters numerous figures from Greek myth at various stages of her eternal life. At the same time, the writing is absolutely stunning and so unerringly full of meaning that it mostly makes up for the relative lack of plot development.
Circe is one of the many daughters of the sun god Helios, but she lacks such divine characteristics as voice and appearance, so is cast aside by her fellows and forced to turn towards mortals in order to gain companionship. She discovers the power of witchcraft and when love causes her to inflict an evil spell, she is exiled indefinitely to the island of Aiaia.
There, she continues to develop her abilities and provides hospitality for the many men who arrive, lost at sea; only to punish them when they – foolishly overwhelmed by the very existence of such an independent woman – try to take advantage of her sole presence. She leaves just the once at the request of her sister Pasiphae, while making fateful connections with the likes of Deadalus, and Odysseus, back from the Trojan War.
The entire book is written in the first person, and as a narrator Circe is exceptionally immersive. In the writing as well as in her opinions and actions are some subtle touches of feminism which I appreciated, but most interesting of all was how she felt towards others and reacted to certain situations. These aspects of the story reflected the challenges some face in modern society, and though the comparison is quite subtle, it is also mightily effective.
My favourite part of the story was in the second half when Circe became a mother to Telegonus, which in several ways changed her view of the world and confirmed the fact that as a character, she was developed extremely well. In contrast, my main problem with the book was the fact it was surprisingly light in terms of plot. There were moments where it seemed quite prosaic, or even repetitive.
Yet perhaps in this case that is not quite as significant as it would be in another book. After all, it merely adopts the story of the Odyssey and chooses a new narrative approach by entirely focusing on Circe and giving her a voice. In creating this book, Madeline Miller definitely achieves what she set out to do.
The supporting characters all brought interesting perspectives, and for me it was both fascinating and enriching to learn more about how the Greek gods are personified. I found Hermes entertaining to read, enjoyed the interactions between Circe and her self-important brother Aetes, and carefully absorbed the deeply meaningful scenes with Oddeyseus.
The most remarkable feature of the book is the writing. To put it simply, it is literary brilliance. It felt like every single word was chosen with careful thought; each sentence conveyed with supreme elegance and poetic symbolism. There is an almost endless amount of adjectives used, and that is part of what makes the story so consuming.
Overall, this may be a book somewhat short on plot, but there is much to enjoy. Circe is a brilliant narrator and the writing is a tour de force, relaying a fascinating story. A truly modern and insightful take on an ancient story and character, it is a fine piece of work.
A great piece of storytelling, only undermined by a meandering plot. I enjoyed The Song Of Achilles more, but this was still a highly accomplished book from Madeline Miller.