Book Review - 'Circe' by Madeline Miller

This is Madeline Miller’s second book, and the first that I’ve read. Before we go any further, can we just take a moment to drink in this cover? The photo does it no justice at all – shiny and embossed, it’s more of a coppery colour. And it’s just as beautiful without the dust jacket.

'Circe' by Madeline Miller
'Circe' - dust jacket

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.
When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, vengeful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.
There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Breathing life into the ancient world, Madeline Miller weaves an intoxicating tale of gods and heroes, magic and monsters, survival and transformation.

And what life she has breathed into this story. Having read ‘The Odyssey’ ages ago, I admit all I remembered of Circe was that she’d used her witchcraft to turn Odysseus’ men into swine and the speed with which she submitted to Odysseus when her magic didn’t work on him. I liked how she surrounded herself with wild animals but wasn’t impressed with how quickly she invited Odysseus to her bed and allowed him and his men to spend a year on her island.

When I came across this book, I was intrigued enough to buy the hardcover version, not something I tend to do. The story is told from Circe’s point of view, and Ms Miller has given her a compelling voice; I was ensnared from the first sentence.
When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.

I’m not usually a fan of stories told in first person, but this was, without doubt, the best way to tell this story. In ‘The Odyssey’, Circe is a minor character; she doesn’t stand out as such when compared to the trials and hardships that Odysseus has to face to reach his home in Ithaca.

But in ‘Circe’, Ms Miller has taken this minor character and given her a larger-than-life story. I think what makes this book such a riveting read is the total focus on Circe. There are no unnecessary side stories. We’re drawn into Circe’s life; we’re privy to her thoughts… nothing is hidden from us. She’s far from perfect; she can be unreasonable and gives in to her negative emotions, but I found her very easy to like. I felt for the young girl who was regularly scorned and made fun of by her family. I so wanted her to be lucky in love. I shook my fist at the gods who treated her like she was less than nothing yet still feared her.

Although the focus of the story is all on Circe, we’re still treated to an astounding cast of characters – Scylla; Daedalus; Circe’s sister, Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur; Medea; not to mention the Titans, gods and goddesses. And, last but by no means least, Penelope – another well-written woman, she quickly became my second favourite character.

Although she uses straightforward, simple words, Ms Miller’s descriptions are lyrical and evocative. Like this description of Helios’ halls, which also conveys something of the sun god's nature…
My father’s halls were dark and silent. His palace was… buried in the earth’s rock, and its walls were made of polished obsidian. Why not? They could have been anything in the world, blood-red marble from Egypt or balsam from Araby, my father had only to wish it so. But he liked the way the obsidian reflected his light, the way its slick surfaces caught fire as he passed. Of course, he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.

On Aiaia, where Circe is banished, once she gets over her terror at being left completely on her own, she realises she’s been living a half-life.
On the hilltop before me was a house, wide porched, its walls built from finely fitted stone… A little below stretched a hem of forests, and beyond that a glimpse of the sea.
It was the forest that drew my eye. It was old growth, gnarled with oaks and lindens and olive groves, shot through with spearing cypress… The trees shook themselves thickly in the sea-winds, and birds darted through the shadows. Even now I can remember the wonder I felt. All my life had been spent in the same dim halls, or walking the same stunted shore with its threadbare woods. I was not prepared for such profusion and I felt the sudden urge to throw myself in, like a frog into a pond.

Her witch powers – ‘Pharmakeia, such arts are called, for they deal in pharmaka, those herbs with the power to work changes upon the world, both those sprung from the blood of gods, as well as those which grow common upon the earth’ – don’t appear to her in an instant; she has to put in the work and practice, practice, practice.
I learned to plait my hair back, so it would not catch on every twig, and how to tie my skirts at the knee to keep the burrs off. I learned to recognise the different blooming vines and gaudy roses, to spot the shining dragonflies and coiling snakes…
I looked at the blossoms lying on my table. They seemed shrunken, etiolated. I did not have the first idea of what I should do to them. Chop? Boil? Roast? There had been oil in my brother’s ointment, but I did not know what kind. Would olive from the kitchen work? Surely not…
Well, I said to myself, do not just stand there like a stone. Try something. Boil them. Why not?

Circe’s interactions with the other characters, especially Daedalus, Odysseus, her son, Telegonus, even Penelope and Telemachus are all richly told. In Ms Miller’s hands, they become real people, each one a distinct character, strong and memorable in their own way. The gods are portrayed as illogical and capricious, which is how the Ancient Greeks saw them, but they don’t come across as stereotypical or two-dimensional.

Although a minor deity, Circe isn’t portrayed as an unattainable goddess. We get to know this remarkable woman extremely well because we’re allowed to share her most personal thoughts. For me, that’s what makes this book – we’re shown Circe as a woman, with the same needs, hopes, desires and dreams as humans.

A scholar of the Classics, Madeline Miller knows her Greek mythology inside and out. She’s amassed all that’s out there about Circe and spun a very believable tale. I read this book slowly, not because it was difficult to read, but I was savouring every part of it; I did not want it to end. When I got to the ending, it made me cry; it was exactly how I’d wanted it to end.

At the talk I attended at the British Museum with Ms Miller, Bettany Hughes and Kamila Shamsie, Ms Miller said she’d wanted to reclaim Circe’s story; she wanted to bring the focus back to this very clever woman who had the wit to surpass Odysseus in their verbal sparring. I suppose one can say, if ‘The Odyssey’ was a man’s story then ‘Circe’ is the woman’s story of that same time including the ages before and after.

No hardship giving this 5* for a very satisfying read.

Book Review - 'The Silent Dead' by Tetsuya Honda (translated by Giles Murray)

Back after my little break. Enjoyed a mini-heatwave and a thunderstorm; now we’re back to the usual fare of April showers.

Finished another book from my reading challenge list, My first experience reading a novel by a Japanese author that’s been translated. There’s a minor SPOILER near the end of the post.

'The Silent Dead' by Tetsuya Honda

When a mutilated body wrapped in a blue tarpaulin is found in a quiet neighbourhood, Lieutenant Reiko Himekawa and her squad are assigned the case. As the youngest female detective in the Homicide Division, Reiko has a lot to prove, but she has an undeniable ability to solve crimes. When she uncovers more murders with the same signature, she knows there is a serial killer at work.
What is Strawberry Night, the dark web group that links all the victims? And how long will Reiko survive, now the killer knows her name?

The plot caught my attention and drew me in; personally, I found it original, very much in keeping with the digital age. I wanted to know how the crimes were going to be solved. I wanted to know how Japanese police procedure worked.

The book starts in first person. The anonymous character speaks of the awfulness of their life and the chapter culminates in a crime being committed. This same character pops up a few times and we see events from their point of view. But I found it jarring, mainly because the ‘present tense’ of first person is telling of things that, for us, have already happened. Also, the rest of the book is in third person.

In the next chapter, we’re introduced to Reiko Himekawa and, soon after that, to the discovery of the body. She’s one of the first detectives on the scene. The body has been carefully wrapped in blue tarpaulin with the throat cut and another cut on the stomach; further investigation reveals that the cut on the stomach was made post-mortem. Given the meticulous manner in which the body had been wrapped, the detectives are mystified as to why it had been dumped in plain sight.

Reiko’s ‘undeniable ability’ to solve crimes is an almost sixth-sense ability to ‘see’ things and make connections which others don’t – almost like she’s thinking outside the box though there are times it comes across as almost psychic. Her colleagues tend to view her insights as little more than fantastical notions.

In time, the investigation, following Reiko’s lead, uncovers another body. But there’s nothing connecting the victims other than the way they worked – both were good workers, went through a phase of being jaded with life before embracing, mainly, their work life with a renewed enhanced enthusiasm. Interestingly, both victims were known to frequent an “unknown destination on the evening of the second Sunday of the month”. Except that no one in their private or work lives knows the location or the purpose of the visit. Eventually, the police start to piece the puzzle together and realise they’re dealing with a serial killer.

One of the things I liked was the emphasis placed on the psychological side of the crimes; the way seemingly ‘normal’ people can find themselves drawn to murder. The perpetrator was an interesting choice, and I worked out who it was about halfway through the book. Not that I’m a genius – I rarely get it right – but, to me, the whole set up around that character was presented too obviously.

And with that, I shall now switch to my disappointment with this novel. I really, really wanted to like it, but it was not to be.

For starters, too much attention is paid to Reiko’s private life. I get that, at almost 30, her parents are worried she’s never going to settle down. So, her mother tries to play matchmaker, which, understandably, leaves Reiko annoyed. I lost count of the number of times Reiko consciously refuses to answer her phone, keeping it on silent then forgetting about it.

On page 27, we learn that she hates the summer:
Smothering heat enveloped her the instant she got off the bus and momentarily stopped her in her tracks. Something cold and nauseous welled up inside her. She hated summer. It brought back memories of that awful night. That summer when she was seventeen.

Hints about ‘that awful night’ are peppered through the narrative until the big reveal about halfway through the book. I was fervently hoping it wouldn’t be the obvious…

Despite the fact that she’s a capable detective, she spends a lot of time having to prove herself to her colleagues. Although her immediate team treat her with respect, her other male peers come across as misogynistic bullies, who take great delight in humiliating her.

I, personally, didn’t find Reiko a likeable protagonist. She comes across as self-centred and seems to have a massive chip on her shoulder. Although that’s understandable, given what she has to put up with, there’s a sense that Reiko herself has a touch of prejudice against most women. I didn’t particularly enjoy her interactions with other women, like this scene with a potential witness:
The woman’s tone made it clear that the last thing she wanted to do was to go through the whole thing for a second time. Reiko detected a note of powerful personal dislike in Mrs. Hirata’s eyes. She seemed to be sizing up Reiko and thinking, “You’re young, stuck-up, tall – and a woman!
… Reiko scribbled the phone number of the Kameari police station onto the back of her business card before she handed it over. Mrs. Hirata took the card with both hands in the formal manner, scrutinized it, then looked up, as if to compare the card with its owner.

What is it now? You’re thinking, “So that’s a lieutenant, is it?”
The real question was whether Mrs. Hirata even understood what lieutenant actually meant…
Or are you insinuating that I don’t look like a lieutenant should?
As these thoughts were running through Reiko’s mind, she noticed for the first time how neatly made up Mrs. Hirata was. She was startled…
Damn! Maybe I’m the one who looks like shit!
Reiko began to worry that she was the one with makeup problems.

As a whole, the police didn’t seem professional. One, in particular, another lieutenant, Katsumata, is the same rank as Reiko but older. He’s not only offensive when dealing with her; he calls people ‘moron’, thinks women are ‘sluts’, imagines bedding witnesses… I’ve read thrillers with obviously misogynistic men, but here it was so overdone as to be absurdly comic.

None of the detectives seems to think that solving the crime is of paramount importance; its every detective for him/herself as they all seem to prefer going solo. They flout procedure by stealing witnesses and, most annoyingly, not sharing crucial information.

That few of them carry guns wasn’t a big deal for me as the police in the UK aren’t armed. But, given the number of times the detectives sit down at proper restaurants for long lunches, they seem to have a lot of time on their hands. What I did find strange was the lack of police cars – all the travelling was done by train and taxi.

The sexual harassment was unbelievable. Even as a detective, Reiko wasn’t spared. Blatant, in-your-face harassment even at her place of work, both physical and verbal.

There’s some sexual violence; to be honest, I struggled with how graphic it was. That’s one of the reasons I don’t watch many crime dramas/police procedurals these days – it seems as if rape is too often used simply as a device to move a story forward, and then it has to be as sexually violent/depraved as possible.

There are too many instances of info-dumping – having just been introduced to Reiko, we’re subjected to almost two pages of how frustrating her life is as a young woman lieutenant. We get the same thing again, over halfway through the book, another two pages of backstory for a detective who’s hardly had any ‘screen’ time.

I don’t know how much has been lost in translation, but the translated version reminded me of over-the-top comic fiction. Which made reading hard work; I had to keep reminding myself I was reading a serious crime story. A few examples…

When their taxi pulled up at the Kameari police station, Reiko and Ioka piled out and dashed up the front stairs… They charged down the corridor, shouldered open the door, and barged straight into the evening meeting.

Rubberneckers were a royal pain in the ass.” That’s not dialogue, by the way.

I found the choice of words, especially in dialogue, jarring; they didn’t suit the genre at all. Like a foul-mouthed detective telling his partner, “it’s time for us to skedaddle.” Seriously? A grown man who openly swears would use the word ‘skedaddle’?

Then there are the unnecessary thought processes. In this scene, Reiko returns a call from one of her colleagues who has unearthed potentially pertinent information:
“Hey, Lieutenant, thanks for getting in touch. You’re not busy?”
“No, I’m fine. What’s up?”
“There’s something I want to show you. Can we meet?”
“Sure. Ikebukuro in, say, an hour and a half?”
“Okay. You’ve been to the Countess Café, haven’t you? Let’s meet there.”
“Okay. See you at 4:30.”

Something he wants to show me? What?’

And in this scene where Otsuka, one of Reiko’s detectives, is explaining to the department what he’s managed to find; Hashizume, the director of the homicide division is less than impressed:
Hashizume… turned back to Otsuka. “What you’ve got here is way too much hearsay for me. Most of your report isn’t even secondhand – it’s thirdhand or worse. Apparently this and what if that. What are you going to come up with next, man – the hound of the bloody Baskervilles? The whole thing looks like an urban myth to me.”
That’s pretty much the reaction I expected from you, Director.
Reiko got to her feet. It was time for her to strut her stuff.

Having those extra sentences was, for me, needless filler.

Maybe the suspense comes across better in the original Japanese? I honestly don’t know. I didn’t ‘feel’ any tension when reading Reiko's reaction to being kicked in the stomach:
Her gorge rose. Her face flushed hot and cold. Her throat seemed to be clogged with stones. Her breathing…

The sentence stops there.

This is the first in a series featuring Reiko Himekawa so I’m sure a lot of the seemingly pointless plot threads will be answered. Although this book has garnered a lot of good reviews, this disappointed reader can only manage 2.5* and will not be continuing with this series.