- my rating:4 stars
- published by: Bloomsbury
- genres: historical fiction, retelling
- content warnings: Violence, gore, murder, torture, physical abuse, child abuse, thoughts of suicide, brief scene with cutting, graphic childbirth scenes, mention of bestiality, mention of incest, animal sacrifice, death of a sibling, death of a child, death of a loved one, death of an animal, rape, adultery, and war themes.
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, wrathful 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.
"When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist"
The Song of Achilles is one of the most beautiful retellings I’ve ever read. Circe, Madeline Miller’s newest endeavour, shares some of the same mores as The Song of Achilles whilst remaining unique. What is beautiful about Circe is I feel like no one else could have written that book. No one writes like Madeline Miller. She has this really unique ability to bring the distant past into the present, reimagining the Greek myths in a way that the characters feel achingly real and alive, and yet the mythology is so central and transportive.
What I love about Madeline Miller is she takes these stories which are archaic and firmly situated in the realms of the highbrow and the academic, but she makes them real and accessible. She portrays characters who are gods, men, heroes, mothers and children but their hurting and hoping and are extremely human and relatable in all their flaws and faults. The Song of Achilles dealt with violence, war and grief. Circe is much more of a character study. Miller gives Circe, a character traditionally marginalised and portrayed exclusively through the male gaze, centre spotlight here, crafting her story and her character into a fully realised woman. It’s incredibly beautiful to see Circe’s growth, and to see her reclaim her agency and her body throughout this narrative. In such a short work, Miller does a lot, and I cannot tell you how much my heart was invested in Circe by the end of this story.
Circe is ultimately a coming of age story, and the eponymous character Circe is the perfect narrator to lead us through this story. We follow Circe from her birth to the god Helios and the nymph Perse, through her childhood and into her later life. Primarily, Circe is interested in unravelling a character, revealing her inner works, and representing her in her wholeness. I really liked that Circe focussed first and foremost on Circe’s development from a naive and abused child into a strong, formidable woman. But Miller is clever with her development, it’s slow and subtle, and on top of that, it doesn’t happen easy. Various events, failings, and doomed meetings take Circe to where she finishes this story and that felt extremely authentic. We, as people, are made up partly by ourselves, but partly through those we know and interact with. Throughout it all, Miller humanises Circe to the utmost degree. Although she is a witch, goddess and nymph, Circe is a character who is so achingly human and alive, and it’s beautiful to see her grow and learn and to follow in that journey with her.
"My divinity shines in me like the last rays of the sun before they drown in the sea. I thought once that Gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands"
One of the most interesting things about this book was how Circe’s life intersected with so many classical and recognisable greek stories – Pasiphaë and the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Medea and Jason and of course, Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus. I really liked the incorporation of other myths into the story, but what I think was clever about it was the subtle reworking of these myths to centre Circe’s importance to these heroes stories. For Miller, Circe was not just an evil witch who turned Odysseus men into pigs, she was also a woman who loved him, looked after his men, sheltered him and overlooked a lot for him. Circe is not a fringe character, relegated to a few throwaway lines in mythology. She is a central figure, of great importance to the most popular figures in mythology and I loved this so much. Shifting Circe’s character into one less liminal gave her so much agency, and it was also just fun to see these myths reworked. In a way, it felt like the Odyssey in that Circe is almost a romp through Greek mythology, we are retold a dozen myths with Circe at the helm and I LOVED it.
Finally, I feel like I can’t talk about this book without talking some more about the writing. As I mentioned, no one writes like Madeline Miller. Her word use is so clever. Carefully she constructs such beautiful and moving imagery, from the rocky shores of Aiaia, to the monstrous Scylla and the tragic fall of Icarus. Her writing really made me feel something, and the genuine raw emotion she is able to imbue these pages with is breathtaking. I highlighted many a passage in my book because so much of that writing is too good to miss.
All I can say about Circe is that it is singular. I have not read any book like it and I doubt no one will ever produce anything like it – except maybe Miller when she (hopefully) pens her next title. The titular character Circe is a heroine you can’t miss, who’s strength rises in the fact of intense animosity and despair. Miller crafted a character who is so intensely human, and who’s voice rings to clearly in this story. Circe rises to the forefront to become the feminist heroine of her own story, and it was beautiful.
until next time!