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.