A number of books now are retellings or reimagining of other books, stories or historical events. I would include in that list Hamnet which I read a couple of months ago and is reviewed here, The Importance of Being Emma which I read at the beginning of this month and is reviewed here, The Penelopiad which I read in February and is reviewed here and The Song of Achilles which is here. I could name many others and there is, at least, one more to come this month. It is becoming a favourite genre and I quite like to read these retellings even if they can be variable in quality.
Madeline Miller has written Circe as a retelling of the life of a demi-goddess/nymph in Greek mythology. I am a bit handicapped when reading retellings of Greek stories as I don’t know the originals well although I seem to have read quite a few lately as the list above will show. I also counted The Silence of the Girls as one of my books of the year in 2019 and you can read about it here. I don’t think that Circe is as good as Pat Barker’s book but it is another interesting retelling of a Greek myth.
Circe is the daughter of Helios, the sun god, and a nymph but she also is a witch. We follow her life story from when she is a young girl in her father’s courts, overlooked and subject to the whim of others, to when she falls in love with a mortal, develops her powers, is exiled and eventually has a son. The book ends as she leaves the island and tries to put right some of what she has done in earlier life.
The story is essentially a fantasy about a young woman developing her powers, misusing them at the start, learning her strengths, opposing enemies and betrayal and finding her own place in life. In that way the book is well constructed with lots of themes running through it. Circe is a character who grows and changes as the book progresses but she can behave wilfully and even cruelly at times which, on occasion, lessened my sympathy for her,
The book is episodic, especially when Circe is exiled, as each new section concentrates on a new visitor to the island and so I didn’t really get a feel for many of the characters. I also felt that the author didn’t really have a grasp of the way that magic works in this world that she has created because it is difficult to understand its rules and limitations. I did like the way that the gods are described and shown to be selfish and wilful and the author was consistent in drawing stories out of their characters.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Some really engaged me but other bits left me cold. Overall I am glad that I read it but I wouldn’t quickly choose to reread it. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more had I knew the source material better.