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Review of 'House of Odysseus' - Claire North

I'm a huge fan of stories that retell the Greek myths from a different perspective, so was really looking forward to reading this, particularly as it was by an author I hadn't read before. Whilst this doesn't have the fast-paced narrative of other books in the genre, such as those by Pat Barker and Natalie Haynes, it's definitely up there with them in terms of quality. It was much more of a slow-burner and it took me three times as long to read the first half of the book as it did the second half. The first part is very much setting the scene, establishing the characters etc and almost all of the action happens in the last third.

The only thing that put me off a bit - and this is absolutely not a criticism of the book - is that I know how the story of Penelope ends. I know what happens to her maids. I did not want to get attached to them, but I did. I couldn't help it. Menelaus is not a complicated character, he stomps, he shouts, he throws his weight out (literally and figuratively), Orestes is weak and half-mad with guilt, the suitors reminded me of whiny children who aren't getting their own way. The only men who come out of this looking good are Laertes and Kemnon and that's because they respect the women enough to let them get on with doing their thing. On the other hand, the women are impossible to pigeon-hole in quite the same way. They are all experts at presenting one face to the public, whilst keeping their thoughts and opinions to themselves until they are confident that their actions can make a difference. They know they are viewed as weak and unimportant and rather than wallowing in their powerlessness, they find ways to use it to their advantage. These women are not victims of fate, they create their own fate within the confines of their society and when the moment comes to strike they are ready.

The other thing I really liked about the way the narrative is structured is that part of it is narrated by the goddess Aphrodite. This gives a different perspective again. Often, the Greek gods are portrayed as narcissists who care nothing for the humans they use as pawns in their games. This book tells a different story - whilst humans are affected by the gods' petty jealousies and rivalries, the goddesses are also limited in how far they are allowed to act on behalf of their favourites. Zeus is an amplified reflection of the human males. The goddesses are three-dimensional characters and like her favourite, Helen, there is more to Aphrodite than just a beautiful face and this comes across very clearly in the sections she narrates.

I love the Ithacan society created in this world and the characters contained within are bold and expressive. By the end I wanted to cheer for Penelope and her women.

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