The life of a goddess of magic (best known for turning men into pigs) is the subject of Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe. The book is bold, riveting, intimate and imaginative.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is its narrator: a woman who is both immortal and outcast. We follow Circe from her lonely childhood as the mediocre daughter of Helios, the sun god, to her exile on the island of Aiaia. She meets a lot of legendary creatures along the way: the Titan Prometheus, the monster Scylla and the goddess Athena to name a few of my favorites.
However, it is the romantic relationships between Circe and a handful of gods and mortals (including Odysseus the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey) that are a highlight of the book for me. “Less than a month we had spent together, yet he seemed to know me better than anyone who had ever walked the world.” Or this: “There are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.” Back handspring into my heart.
Circe’s sympathy and understanding of mortals produces a stunning theme of the book. “Those frail bodies of theirs took relentless attention, food and drink, sleep and rest, the cleaning of limbs and fluxes. Such patience mortals must have, I thought to drag themselves through it hour after hour.” We see our human selves through the eyes of gods, and it is breathtaking.
Miller’s writing is clean with a touch of poetry. “It was a trick of his, to set a sentence out like a plate on a table and see what you would put on it.” The setting is lush and enchanted, filled with “gaudy roses” and “meadows of thyme and lilac” and “frogs cry[ing] from their mud.” And while most of the characters and plot will be familiar even to the most cursory fans of Greek mythology, the raw evocation of Circe’s inner life—her thoughts, feelings and motivations—makes the story original and compelling.
Best paired with roasted fish on stick-ends, cheese and toasted barley, fruits dried and fresh.