Monday 12 September 2022


Book review: Ithaca by Claire North

A flurry of Greek retellings has been published in recent years and I absolutely love it. I've always enjoyed reading and learning about the classics, and many of the reimaginings that are released these days shine a light on the women that were so often only briefly mentioned in the heroic tales of the Greek men and gods. These new books show that these women were often just as important – if not moreso – in creating the legendary stories as we know them today. 

In Ithaca by Claire North, we get acquainted with Penelope, Odysseus' wife. As a woman, she cannot be seen ruling Ithaca in Odysseus' absence, but she also doesn't want her kingdom to be invaded while her husband is missing, presumed death – and so she threads the fine line between publicly being seen as timid and obedient, while cleverly pulling the strings behind the scenes until her son Telemachus is old, strong, and wise enough to take on the throne. 

After quite a few years, however, the suitors that have been a guest in her home are turning restless, making it harder and harder for Penelope to postpone the inevitable. Not only that, but the island suffers from pirates invading every full moon and, if that wasn't enough, when Penelope's cousin Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon, she's rumoured to have fled to Ithaca. Clytemnestra's children Orestes and Elektra soon arrive, set on bloody revenge...

The Odyssey has always been one of my favourite Greek poems as I love tales of adventures, and Odysseus and his crew experience so much on their journey. But actually, very little time is spend on Penelope who waited for decades while her husband was off being a hero. All we know is that she cleverly kept greedy suitors at bay, only to be tricked by Odysseus as he tests her loyalty upon his return.

In this new retelling we don't spend any time on Odysseus' journey home from the Trojan war. It's all about Penelope as queen of Ithaca, mother to Telemachus, and cousin to Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Elektra. She becomes a well-rounded person, rather than a footnote, and it was so rewarding to learn about her smarts in keeping Ithaca safe amidst so much uncertainty and deceit. I don't know how much of this was already mentioned briefly in the tales of old, and how much is from Claire North's imagination, but it feels completely seamless – as if this is how the story was meant to be told all along.

Interestingly, I'd read a lot more about Clytemnestra and Elektra in other recent retellings, and I now got watch their lives unfold from a different perspective. Not from Penelope's, surprisingly, but from that of the goddess Hera. Because while this is Penelope's story first and foremost, we do not actually hear from her first-hand. It's Hera, who looks down on Penelope, encouraging her along and rooting for her in times of difficulty. And Hera who rallies other goddesses to stand by Penelope when Ithaca is dangerously close to being overrun by pirates. 

Putting Hera in the narrator's seat, means that the gods and goddesses also linger at the edges of the pages of Ithaca, which is very exciting and leaves this reimagined world wide open for potential further explorations of Olympus. However, it also means that we never get truly close to Penelope's inner thoughts and feelings, making it harder for readers to connect with her. While we learn a lot more about what she does in Odysseus' absence, this storytelling approach does feel somewhat distant. 

This is only the first in The Songs of Penelope, however, so it'll be interesting to see how this develops in future stories. I'd like to continue seeing more of the gods and goddesses that watch down on the mortals of the story – and sometimes intervene – but not at the expense of connecting with the main characters. It would then only shift the narrative from the men to the gods, and not to the women that have already been unheard for so long. 

There is a lot of potential in the beautiful writing (and sometimes interesting, more contemporary, phrasings) in Ithaca though. As a first novel in a series it does make sense that it needs to establish the vast world first before going deeper and building strong relationships between main characters and readers. I, for one, cannot wait to learn what's next for Penelope – and how she will continue to be the clever and strong queen that Ithaca needs. 

Ithaca by Claire North is published by Orbit (an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group) and you can now buy a copy from your favourite local book shop!

Disclaimer: This book was gifted to me by the publisher, but this has not impacted this honest review.

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