Miller turns these myths into modern-day marvels, bringing the epics to life in descriptive storytelling. Her previous novel, “The Song of Achilles,” pulls a love story from the verses of the Iliad telling of the Trojan Wars, and in “Circe” she brings a memorable female character to the forefront.
“Epic has been so traditionally male,” Miller says. “All these stories are composed by men, largely starring men, and I really wanted a female perspective.”
The story of Circe bridges the worlds of the gods and mankind. She is born the daughter of Helios, the personification of the sun, and the nymph Perse, in the halls of Oceanus. Yet she becomes enamored with mortals and wants to understand their flaws and flickering short lives. She writes, “Of all the mortals on the earth, there are only a few the gods will ever hear of. Consider the practicalities. By the time we learn their names, they are dead. They must be meteors indeed to catch our attention.”
Throughout the span of Circe’s tale, we meet gods – the quick-tongued Hermes and the vengeful Athena – and also some of the meteor-like mortals: Daedalus, Icarus and, at last, Odysseus. Except, now, hearing the story through Circe’s voice, we learn of how she came to be exiled on her isle and of the distrust that led her to transform Odysseus’s men into pigs.
“Later, I would hear a song made of our meeting,” Circe tells us. “I was not surprised by the portrait of myself: the proud witch undone before the hero’s sword, kneeling and begging for mercy. Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets.” Instead of his heroic escapades, here Odysseus becomes more humanized.
The splendor in this retelling of Circe comes in the author’s breathtaking language and use of metaphor. She describes Helios: “At my father’s feet, the whole world was made of gold. The light came from everywhere at once, his yellow skin, his lambent eyes, the bronze flashing of his hair. His flesh was as hot as a brazier, and I pressed as close as he would let me, like a lizard to noonday rocks.” Circe’s baby brother’s skin is described as “soft as petal-velvet,” and the hero Hector “was not polished and perfect, but he was the same all the way through, like a block of marble cut whole from a quarry.” A question becomes “like an oak-seedling.”
The language Miller uses is so vivid and beautiful that you wish that it was being recited or sung as epic tales used to be. “Circe” is an epic in its own right, and we hope her story is told for ages.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on May 3, 2018.
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