Madeline Miller’s enthralling second novel may be about a goddess, but it has a lot to say about what it means to be a woman. In Circe, the acclaimed author of The Song of Achilles (which won the Orange Prize in 2012) unfurls the story of the legendary witch from Homer’s Odyssey with lyric intensity.
Circe grows up in the palace of her father, the sun god Helios, listening to stories of the legendary fall of the Titans and conflicts among the gods. Like all immortals, Helios is ruthless, capricious and obsessed with maintaining his status. Circe, a goddess without exceptional beauty or discernible power, is sidelined in his court, unworthy of even being married off. It isn’t until Circe falls in love with a mortal that she realizes she has the ability to bless or harm others through transfiguration—a discovery that causes her to be labeled a threat. Helios exiles her to a remote island; there, she is able to further develop her skills with pharmakeia, the art of using plants and herbs to perform magic.
Though sailors occasionally attempt to seek shelter on her island’s shores, Circe protects herself by transforming any men with bad intentions into pigs. As centuries roll by, key encounters with gods and humans alike punctuate her isolated existence—a meeting with Medea and a shocking midwifery scene are particularly mesmerizing. Eventually, Circe’s connections with others force her to embrace her powers, breach her exile and choose her destiny.
Miller, who studied classics at Brown University and teaches high school Greek and Latin, paints a vivid picture of classical Greece: the mindset of its people, the beauty of its landscapes, the details of daily tasks. The elemental allure of mythology, with its magic and mystery and questions of fate and free will, is presented here with added freshness that comes from seeing this world from a female perspective. Like its heroine, this is a novel to underestimate at your peril.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Madeline Miller for Circe.