Orbit, 24 August 2023
Available as: HB, 420pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy
I'm grateful for the publisher for an advance copy of House of Odysseus to consider for review.
I always have high expectations of a Claire North book. House of Odysseus met them, and then went to much further, I'm actually rather stunned - and left floundering a bit, as anything I can say about this book seems superfluous. You should just go and read it.
Trying to put together some cogent thoughts, though, House of Odysseus is North's followup to her Ithaca. Both books are set in the misty time between heroic myth (the siege of Troy is recently finished) and and history and they focus on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, one of the (Greek) heroes of the Trojan war. Odysseus set out for home after the destruction of Troy, but has not yet arrived, leaving Penelope with all kinds of problems. As was established in Ithaca, these include suitors - men who, presuming Odysseus dead, want to marry Penelope and take the kingdom.
I remember first hearing about Homer's Odyssey, the tales about Odysseus making his way home, in primary school when I was 8 or 9. Of course they would have been carefully filtered, but the encounters with magic, monsters and gods still survived as interesting and fantastic stories. I recall though even then being frustrated that it took him so long - ten years! - to actually get home, and also being rather cross that Penelope had to fend off all those annoying suitors. Why didn't someone just tell them to get lost, I wondered. The intrusion of these unwanted guests into the royal palace, pressing their claims and demanding to be fed and accommodated, seemed dangerous and troubling, out of kilter with a setting which presumed an adorned, functional society, as did Odysseus's protracted journey. It didn't take him ten years to get to Troy, after all.
I wish I had asked my teacher to explain all this. Fifty years on I can see of course that the answer to Penelope's treatment comes in one word - patriarchy - and perhaps that the second - Odysseus travails - might be about the tension in the text between history and myth - but I doubt that a primary school teacher in the mid 70s would have put it that. I'd love to know what the answer would have been though. (Probably "don't be awkward, David"). North is blunt about, especially, the first question. In House of Odysseus, she introduces us to King Menelaus of Sparta, a splendidly drawn monster. Unlike Odysseus, Menelaus went straight home, taking his recaptured wife, Helen, with him. Now, though, he's abroad again, involved in a complex power play for the throne of Mycenae which would make him high king of Greece, so also threatening Penelope's, and Odysseus's, Islands of the West. All of this is cloaked in good intentions - helping Penelope with her problems, sticking up for Menelaus's (alas!) missing brother-in-arms Odysseus, and so forth, and so on, but the threat is clear.
It's given added menace by the plight of Helen herself.
What exactly happened to Helen after Troy? As one might expect, it's not nice. We see here here a Helen who is cowed, tamed and, in Penelope's appalled eyes, just less. We're let in on a few secrets courtesy of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sex, who's the narrator of this book, so we know that Helen has been - is being - beaten and raped by her loving husband. There is still an enigma to her though, and Penelope recognises a survivor when she sees one. The two had been close, but grew apart - 'No one told Helen that she would grow up to be royal, regal, wise, learned or revered, so it didn't really occur to her childlike mind that these might be aspirations to seek'.
Penelope's own role here is, as in Ithaca, constrained. Regarded by the men around her as other, lesser, a mere piece of property or perhaps (by the suitors, by Menelaus) a piece on the board, nevertheless she's the one with the practical nous and the sense of responsibility to keep things going. Think of a woman who makes sure there's food on the table and that the kids have clothes to wear - even if that means getting beaten for finagling the wages out of her man's pocket before he can spend them at the pub on drink. The tired one. The woman with no time for herself, who gets little sleep, who is invisible yet indispensable. The one who's going to sort out the various messes here, including talking down Orestes, killer of his own mother, who has returned to Ithaca haunted by the Furies. Orestes, and his sister Elektra, are Menelaus's quarry, his excuse to assume supreme kingship.
The one who, if she has to step out of the shadows, may be accepted in a crisis, but who will be punished later for overstepping.
Before we get to that point, though, there's a murder to solve and delightfully the story turns a shade of Whodunnit with clues, suspects and a tight timescale (Penelope has just three days to produce a suitable culprit). I could North having fun importing the conventions of detective fiction here ('Now she is done - now she will depart. She gives a little nod of her head while turning away, but still Penelope has one last enquiry...') while keeping the story true to its mythic nature. (I can imagine a whole spinoff line of Penelope murder mysteries which would be glorious). The character, as North depicts her, is just so compelling, whether sleuthing, sparring verbally with Menelaus (who recognises her as an enemy - though be warned he plots how he will 'take' her once she is defeated), holding together a delicate alliance of women (and even the odd man) necessary to keep the island safe, just keeping up appearances - or managing the complexities of the situation that faces her in this book (as challenging an imbroglio as Jeeves ever confronts in PG Wodehouse (another echo of which: look out for old King Laertes and his love of pigs and his desire to be back at his farm tending them).
Penelope is supremely skilful at this sort of generalship, an accomplished strategios. Here is how North has Aphrodite describes that: 'It is only on those rare occasions when she perhaps plays a skilled opponent at tavli and sees a cunning trap, a clever little move, and cannot stop herself, cannot suppress the beating of her heart and the twitch of the smile on her lips, that she shimmers. She glows with excitement, and take it from me, excitement and arousal are often of the same fluttering breath, the same licked lips, the same wide eyes, the same hot flushed cheeks. Odysseus saw this in his wife, before he sailed to Troy, only once. But there was never enough time in the day for games, and then he was gone. This then is the light that now shines upon Penelope's face...' (Trust the goddess of love to spot that glint of beauty that comes from confidence and mastery of the task).
None of this is without cost to Penelope, of course. Part of her mastery is her busyness, her willingness to put in - her knowledge of the necessity of putting in - the effort. Suitors can while away their time drinking or sleeping, they can go back to their homes to be pampered, to be the centre of things. ('There is no feast served in the palace, no formal gathering of men, but there are still suitors, guards, soldiers, kings and maids to be fed') Penelope is always, as I have said, so very tired.
The writing in House of Odysseus is, as ever from North, glorious - she can simply make words dance on the page - whether it's particular passing remarks ('the kind of blade a process should never carry, and which all princesses should') or the way she charms her characters to life. I'd especially note the vivid way she gives voice to Aphrodite. North excels at portraying her, almost entirely through voice and side comments rather than actions because she (and the other gods) are unable to intervene much in events (she does on a few key occasions). This Aphrodite comes across very much as a shrewd, experienced woman, one with an eye for a warrior's nicely toned body ('The next door is answered by Iason, he of the lovely neck and really rather dishy arms'), interested in either sex and in most forms of erotic activity (so long as everyone is willing - 'I do not ask people who are not interested...') It feels in some ways like a very modern sensibility, but North makes it seem utterly consistent with the mythological Aphrodite, a fusion that you'd think was nigh on impossible but, read this, see how North pulls it off!
Just a pure brilliant wonderful gorgeous book, a stunning read, my favourite of the year so far (and anything that's better than this will take some doing).
For more information about House of Odysseus, see the publisher's website here.