Circe by Madeline Miller – REVIEW
In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.
When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.
There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
“Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.”
Circe was one of my most-anticipated 2018 releases and I was lucky enough to read an ARC back in January thanks to the lovely people at Bloomsbury. The Song of Achilles is one of my favourite books so I had high hopes for this one. Where The Song of Achilles had an epic sweep to it with the siege of Troy, a cast of mythological heroes, and an extraordinary love story, Circe has a narrower focus, chronicling the life of one character. Yet it’s no less epic for that. Instead, Madeline Miller shows us the majesty contained in a single life. Circe is a witch, a goddess and immortal, exiled by Zeus and Helios to the deserted island of Aiaia with only her animals for company. As a woman in a patriarchal society, Circe is expendable and misogyny is prevalent. In a society based on strength, it was almost expected that stronger men would take what they wanted, raping women both mortal and immortal, without consequence.
“But in a solitary life, 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.”
Every character is nuanced but Circe is beautifully drawn. She does not share the gods’ revulsion of mortals, instead, she is enchanted by them and drawn to their very mortality. The idea of mortality and immortality permeate the story – is immortality a curse, denying rest and promising eternal grief, or is it the greatest gift imaginable? The suffocating loneliness of Circe and her thirst for companionship throughout her years and years of existence was almost painful to read. However, her life intersects with mythological mortals such as Daedalus, Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus, entwining their fates and weaving new stories. Despite Circe being best known from The Odyssey, Odysseus has only a small part – this story is about Circe, not the men who knew her.
“He was another knife, I could feel it. A different sort, but a knife still. I did not care. I thought: give me the blade. Some things are worth spilling blood for.”
The beautiful prose was lyrical and powerful. Every sentence, every word, is essential and conjures its own kind of magic. The descriptions of the island and nature were evocative and I could have read pages focused just on those. Rereading The Song of Achilles immediately after finishing this, it was evident that Madeline Miller’s writing style and prose has matured. The story weaved itself into my soul and I found myself limiting how many pages I read so I could savour it. The open ending was powerful in its ambiguity but I hope Circe found some measure of happiness. This has definitely been one of the best books I’ve read in recent years and I can see myself rereading it over and over.
|About the Author
Madeline Miller was born in Boston and grew up in New York City and Philadelphia. She attended Brown University, where she earned her BA and MA in Classics. For the last ten years, she has been teaching and tutoring Latin, Greek and Shakespeare to high school students. She has also studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought, and in the Dramaturgy department at Yale School of Drama, where she focused on the adaptation of classical texts to modern forms.