A couple of weeks ago I read Madeline Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles. The book had been on my TBR for a long time but as soon as her second novel , Circe, made the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I was more inspired than ever to read her work. You can read my review for The Song of Achilles here, but suffice to say that the I thought the book was brilliant and thoroughly deserved the high praise it has received in the past. Fast forward to the present time, and I can now proudly say that I’ve read both of Madeline Miller’s novels after quickly sinking my teeth into the much anticipated Circe.
Circe, much like Miller’s first novel, is a historical fiction which is essentially the author retelling certain elements and stories within the Greek myths. Whilst her first novel focused upon the mighty and well famed Greek hero Achilles, this time we are given the lesser known tale of Circe, a goddess of magic, or, as she is more often referred to, a witch. Daughter to the powerful Titan and sun god Helios, Circe has always been a disappointment to her parents, with no apparent power of her own to follow in her father’s footsteps. After she is eventually exiled to the island of Aeaea, Circe is left to fend for herself, finding her own way to survive in a time where gods and monsters lay ready to both literally and metaphorically devour her at any given moment. But can a woman with no claims to the title goddess really survive what the fates have in store for her?
One of the reasons why I think this book has been received so well, and one of the elements which really did make the experience all the more unique and enjoyable, was the fact that the author has focused her book upon such a lesser known character in Greek mythology. Of course, if you’re a hardcore Greek fan then chances are you’ve already heard of Circe, but for the vast majority of readers she is an unknown character who has never really been made available to the masses. Indeed, as with much of the world’s history, women have always been critically marginalised, especially when it comes to their male counterparts. Women could be wives and daughters and so forth, but the heroines of their own stories? Very rarely. To be given not only the chance to delve into the intricacies of an often missed Greek mythological character, but to also have that character be a woman, was a really quite thrilling thing to encounter in such an accessible book.
I’m pretty sure I described The Song of Achilles as being completely accessible as well, but Circe has really solidified for me just how clever and skilled a writer that Madeline Miller is. We can’t forget that she is an academic individual who has studied the Classics, so it would be more than natural for her to write a detailed academically styled book which focuses on the microscopic minutiae of the Greek myths. Instead she writes with such a natural cadence, giving us the story in a readable yet deliciously descriptive way that is suited to any level of interest in the Greek myths. It’s truly amazing just how much she can bring to life for us without having to write a lengthy tome which could lose our interest after just a few short pages.
I also think it’s incredibly clever how Miller has brought this narrative together so cohesively. Just as we witness many of the women sat at their looms weaving their way through the day, so Miller weaves her stories together seamlessly. She may be more forgotten than many of the other larger Greek heroes, gods and goddesses, but Circe’s life is by no means separate from the likes of such things. Miller illustrates for us quite shockingly just how much of a reach Circe has had across the larger backdrop of Greek mythology, allowing Circe to become integrated with so many other infamous tales. From her role in helping to birth the mythical creature the Minotaur (half bull and half man), to her interactions with Odysseus on his way back from the Trojan War. She may have been exiled and disliked by many, but here we are given an account of Circe which proves she was much more than her contemporaries wanted to admit. Even so, these other stories never steal the focus from Circe herself, always maintaining the idea that she is the central character.
What I’ve come to understand from Madeline Miller’s writing is that her strength really does lie in her superb characterisation. Neither of her books are particularly lengthy, yet she never fails to make her readers become intimately acquainted not only with her central characters, but even the more minor cast list. It really is impressive just how closely you feel yourself become connected to the characters, how you begin to understand what makes them tick and their small idiosyncrasies and nuances which are essentially what build such strikingly multidimensional characters. It’s this talent which makes the read so much more enjoyable as a whole.
I’ve already briefly mentioned the fact that Circe is of course the daughter of the Titan and sun god, Helios. She’s born into a family of great importance with many full and half siblings scattered throughout the story. What I found particularly interesting and what I’m so glad we get the time to analyse was her relationship with her father, and indeed the wider family dynamics. The Greek gods may be famous, but they are not known for their kindness and sense of morals. Time and time again we see them asserting their power over others, their cruelty shining through. Circe may have impressive ancestry, but she is not excluded from the games that the gods play. What’s even more interesting is that it takes her so long to even realise that she is being treated so despicably. Right from the off she is viewed as the underdog, and whilst the other characters may have more power, it is Circe we are inexplicably drawn to through her pains and failures in life.
I’m so glad that I’ve finally gotten around to reading Circe, but I’m also extremely gutted that I don’t have anything else left to read by Madeline Miller! She really is a truly superb writer who stores are by no means isolated to those interesting in historical fiction. These are not just retelling of the Greek myths; they are also incredibly entertaining and well writing stories in their own right, and I can’t wait for her to release another book!