In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. Circe is strange – not powerful and terrible, like her father, nor gorgeous and mercenary like her mother. But she has a dark power of her own: witchcraft. When Circe’s gift threatens the gods, she is banished to the island of Aiaia where she hones her occult craft, casting spells, gathering strange herbs and taming wild beasts. Yet a woman who stands alone cannot live in peace for long – and among her island’s guests is an unexpected visitor: the mortal Odysseus, for whom Circe will risk everything.
Circe’s tale is a vivid epic of family rivalry, love and loss – the inextinguishable song of woman burning hot and bright in the darkness of a man’s world.
First published: 2018
Madeline Miller had been on my radar for a while before I picked up Circe in my local bookstore last autumn. I’d heard amazing things about both Circe and her earlier novel The Song of Achilles, which is also a retelling of a story from Greek mythology. However, after being very disappointed with another Achilles retelling, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, I was a little hesitant to pick up The Song of Achilles – figuring that perhaps I should take a break from the Trojan War for a bit. Luckily, there was Circe, a book many people have been fawning over, which piqued my interest. I fell in love with Circe – both the character and the book – and I’m very happy to join in the fawning. This book is amazing!
Circe had me hooked from start to finish, which doesn’t happen to me all that often; I usually need a few chapters to really get into a book. Circe’s voice as a narrator and Miller’s writing style made sure that I was intrigued right away. The story begins with Circe telling us all about her childhood in the house of her father, Helios, but the distance with which she explains everything that happened tells us that it all happened a long time ago and that a lot has happened since then to change Circe and her perspective on her family and the world in general. This sense of distance and the little hints Circe leaves in her narration to things yet to come kept me on my toes and made me eager to read on.
That leads me to the pacing of this novel, which, to me, was exactly right. I’ve seen some reviews describe Circe as being slow-paced, but I didn’t have that experience at all. It felt like the plot was continually driven forward, even when it seemed like not that much was happening while Circe was alone on her island. The story spans several centuries of Circe’s immortal life and a lot does happen in that time. By the end of the novel, I’d almost forgotten all of the things that happened towards the beginning because Circe goes through a lot and develops as a character so much that the events from the beginning truly felt like several lifetimes ago, which to me indicates that the pacing was perfect.
Madeline Miller’s beautiful writing style also helped keep the novel interesting at every turn. She writes magnificent prose, and I am especially impressed by her descriptions of nature. Circe’s island Aiaia sounds like the most beautiful place to live (apart from the whole exile aspect of it) and Miller doesn’t just describe it once: with the changing of the seasons, we get new descriptions of the island as Circe is experiencing it. Through her eyes, we experience the same wonder she does at the ever-changing nature of life and the beauty that comes with it.
Spring passed into summer, and summer into fragrant autumn. There were mists now in the morning, and sometimes storms at night. Winter would come soon with its own beauty, the green hellebore leaves shining amid the brown, and the cypresses tall and black against the metal sky.
However, what made this book a resounding, unwavering five-star read for me is the way it handles womanhood and the female rage that can come with it. This novel is unapologetically feminist, but in a way that’s woven into the story very organically. As time goes on, Circe becomes more and more aware of how men are treated differently than women. She sees how daughters are punished for supposedly bad behaviour, but sons never are. She sees how men become cruel when they find out that she is a woman alone on an island. She notices all of these things, as she notices everything, and it’s clear what her opinion is of these inequalities.
Circe grows as a character and she ends up being one of the strongest female characters I have ever read about. She’s angry at the injustices she experiences, but not in a petty way. It makes her grow stronger and bolder and less afraid. Let’s just say it: Circe is a badass.
But Circe’s not the only strong female character in the story, which I think is important. The novel shows other women, who are very different from Circe, but strong and interesting in their own right. There’s no ‘I’m different from other girls’ mentality here. Circe features different women who all have their own strengths and their own flaws. It shows women as history often doesn’t want to: as people in their own right, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, but all with motivations and stories of their own.
I didn’t know much about Circe’s story from Greek mythology before I started reading this novel, but I was drawn in immediately and it hasn’t let me go yet. I adored this novel and will recommend it to everyone who wants to hear it. Go read Circe!