Recommendation: This is not quite as good as Song of Achilles, but it’s still a great read
Where to read: This is perfect reading for a slightly chilly Autumn weekend
Read with: Bourbon old fashioned
In brief: The prose is slightly purple, lush if you’d prefer, and it may feel somewhat like a listicle but it is a great read none the less. Some reviewers have pointed to the strength of Circe’s characterisation, but to my mind the real joy here is the way Miller reinterprets the Greek myths as stories of female agency, as well as male violence.
Miller seems to have found a winning formula in Song of Achilles and Circe – find a minor yet pivotal character in a Homeric epic, fill out their backstory and then use their arc as a way of examining a central character (Achilles and Odysseus) and sexual and gender politics. I don’t think Circe is as tight as Song of Achilles but it is still very well done.
The best way to describe the overarching plot is as a “greatest hits” of classical myth told from a decidedly revisionist perspective. Miller stays fairly true to the broad outlines of these various stories but deemphasises male heroics almost entirely. Her Jason, for example, is a rather callow boy ‘lost in the details of his own legend’, while King Minos of Crete is a drunken, slightly pathetic figure. The only real exceptions to this rule are Daedalus, the master craftsman, and the many-turning Odysseus, both of whom appear as fairly well fleshed out characters. Medea, by contrast, is smart, self-assured, ruthless and very clearly only playing at dutiful meekness in order to manage Jason. Although, in fairness, kidnapping and murdering her own brother during their escape from Colchis might have been something of a giveaway. Similarly, Pasiphaë is a horrendous cow (bad joke sorry), but an impressive and domineering figure in her own right. The irony, of course, is that despite their intelligence and their magic, both women are acutely vulnerable to the whims and brute power of men who are very much their inferiors.
Dipping in and out of these tragic vignettes is Circe herself – witch, demigoddess, sister to Queen Pasiphaë of Crete and King Aeëtes of Colchis, aunt of Medea and the Minotaur and Ariadne, lover of Daedalus, Hermes and Odysseus. She has been something of a weathervane in literary and cultural criticism, ambiguous enough in the original Odyssey that she can be read as a representation of whatever seems most prominent in the zeitgeist.
In that context, the feminist reclamation here is not surprising. Circe starts as a young woman in a patriarchal society with, to divine ears, such an unpleasant voice she is told to remain silent. Over the course of the novel, she works out how to assert herself through small and then larger acts of rebellion and independence, coming to terms with her own power and, oddly for an immortal goddess, humanity. The episode in which Circe turns Odysseus’ men into pigs has variously been interpreted as a parable (for men) about the dangers of drunkenness or female sexuality or gluttony or a representation of reason vs emotion. Here, in a story about the woman rather than the men, it is a rape victim acting in admittedly pre-emptive self-defence (#notallmen lol). Circe’s characterisation is not fully consistent across the novel, largely because her roles in the various myths are not all necessarily conducive to an exculpatory interpretation, but she does emerge as a compelling, sympathetic figure.
The only real problem with Circe is the industry of “feminist reinterpretations of Greek mythology” it seems to have spawned. I have no doubt some of them are excellent, but monotony is never fun and authors are already scraping the bottom of the mythological barrel.