Book of the week: Ithaca

‘Ithaca’ by Claire North

The literature of ancient Greece has provided inspiration for thousands of years. Every year sees a new translation or a reinterpretation – or several – of the stories of Greek gods, goddesses and heroes. It must be said, though, that the gods and heroes have taken up most of the space until lately, when many women have begun to imagine what it was like to be a goddess, or a heroine or a Greek queen, or the spoils of the Trojan War.

In Ithaca, the first in a trilogy, Claire North explores the life and struggles of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. When your husband, the king, has been gone for eighteen years with the vast majority of your kingdom’s able-bodied men, how do you cope? What to do with the influx of suitors who abuse your hospitality while hoping to take over the kingdom? You know none of them can afford to let your son – Odysseus’ heir – live. And above all, how do you rule without appearing to rule, when everyone knows women can’t rule?

Among the problems that Penelope must solve are pirates, when there is no fighting force of men left to defend against them; the lack of a treasury, though all her suitors believe she is hiding the riches Odysseus must have sent home from Troy; a tenuous relationship with her son Telemachus, who believes he’s too old to listen to his mother but has no role model for becoming a man; and finally, the presence of her cousins, Orestes and Elektra, searching for their mother Clytemnestra. If you’re a fan of Greek mythology and modern retellings, you know that nothing good will happen if Orestes and Elektra find Clytemnestra.

Narrated by Hera, the Queen of Olympus, the book gives voice to the many women left childless, unmarried, and nominally in charge of what had been male responsibilities, in a world where the men who are left refuse to believe women are competent. Even Hera, even the other Greek goddesses, are hemmed in and disrespected by the male gods who have recreated the world in their own image, as they would have it be. Hera is careful not to shine her light too brightly, lest Zeus and her other brothers see and put an end to her “meddling.” In fact, all the women whether mortal or immortal, have their struggles, brought to vivid life by the author.

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Author: Julia Miller

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