Circe by Madeline Miller
Published by Bloomsbury, 2018
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
With this novel, Madeline Miller set out to give Circe a voice; to add dimension and agency to a character normally relegated to the side lines of classic Greek mythology. On that front, she has certainly succeeded. Her version of the iconic witch is decidedly more complex, with a strong emotional drive that makes her all the more compelling. That, for me, was the greatest strength of the book.
I also enjoyed Miller’s prose. It’s incredibly readable, but is elevated by some beautiful flourishes. That’s not to say it’s perfect, however. A few particularly modern words and phrases stood out as odd choices, and these felt a little jarring stylistically. Still, it was always an easy book to get through; Miller’s passion and knowledge for mythology radiating from every page.
This enthusiasm, ironically, led to one of my gripes with the book, however. Namely, I thought Miller tried to incorporate a few too many myths and characters into the narrative. Circe’s story threw up enough potential for development as it was, meaning that some of the references to other myths felt like box ticking more than justifiable plot points.
I thought the structure of the plot itself was also somewhat flawed, though perhaps unavoidably so. The very nature of Circe’s life (she is exiled on a remote island) means that she is absent for much of the action, other characters simply relaying information to her after the fact. I can see this would have been tricky to get around without contradicting the existing canon of Circe, but I can’t pretend it served as the most riveting narrative device. On a similar vein, reading about a vastly powerful, immortal witch can take some of the jeopardy out of proceedings. I liked that there was a focus on the emotional and psychological tole of her hardships, but any physical threat from gods and monsters felt lacking, given Circe’s own godly status.
A bit of a mixed bag for me, all-in-all. But in fairness, I always suspected that would be the case, hence my hesitancy to pick this up prior to its longlisting for the Women’s Prize. Purely as a matter of personal preference, I like my mythological retellings on the radical side (i.e. authors taking themes, plot points, and character archetypes from myths, and rewriting them in a modern, real-life setting), as opposed to retellings that still indulge in the swords and sorcery of the original tales. That’s just me, however, and I can both see and respect why Miller is so popular. I could arguably have rated this more harshly, but my appreciation for her craft and how well she ultimately brought everything together convinced me to stick with a solid three stars.
You can pick up a copy of Circe from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!