Ever since I stumbled across Madeline Miller’s brilliant retelling of The Iliad (The Song of Achilles), I’ve been on the hunt for updated versions of The Odyssey.
First up, Love in the Time of Global Warning by Francesca Lia Block. Teenage Penelope survives a world-ending earthquake known as the “Earth Shaker.” She and her motley crew explore the ravaged landscape and face challenges from giants, sirens and witches along the way. Using The Odyssey as their guide for the adventure, the teens make it through and find their way back to Pen’s house.
There are a lot of things to love about Love in the Time of Global Warning. Block’s treatment of gender is refreshing and advanced; She manages to discuss a whole range of LGBTQ issues without being heavy-handed. Another strong point is the way that Block reimagines Odyssey’s tasks for the modern era. The sirens are figured as valley girls who have become part of the sludge covering the earth. They sing to gather bodies to add to their vast collections.
Unfortunately, the story overall is lacking. Block is a brilliant writer but the tale gets away from her — there was no sense of urgency to Pen’s quest. The story repeatedly referred to The Odyssey as a text itself, in addition to the main characters experiencing the trials therein themselves. The result is clunky at best with too much time spent on explaining why something has significance and not enough time explaining what is actually happening in the world outside.
Next up is Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. As the title suggests, the book focuses on Penelope’s story but, in an interesting twist, the story is told by a dead Penelope and her chorus of slaughtered maids. Penelope has spent centuries watching those on earth go about their business, and in doing so has had time to reflect on her own life.
Atwood’s prose is, as always, brilliant. It’s admittedly jarring at first to hear a character from ancient times speak with a modern lilt but once the shock wears off the writing is beautiful. The way Atwood seamlessly blends the ancient world with Penelope’s take on modern events is incredible.
If you are looking for a new take on The Odyssey, my pick is The Penelopiad. Warning: it’s gateway literature to other Atwood works!
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