This is Madeline Miller’s second book, following The Song of Achilles. It follows the life of the immortal nymph Circe, daughter of Helios, the sun god. At the beginning, Circe is insecure and is not sure of who she is, and also grew up in an abusive family with unresponsive parents and cruel siblings. But she slowly grows into her own, until she discovers she can do witchcraft, and that she has more power than she believed.
Since Circe is immortal, her life weaves through and around various other mythological happenings, among them the birth of the Minotaur, which she didn’t only witness, but also directly affected (at least in this narration) and whose fate she helped shape. What I liked most about this book was how Miller expertly included these different myths into the tale, in a truly seamless and masterful way.
I don’t necessarily like it when gods take the center stage of Greek retellings, as opposed to being in the periphery. But Miller makes the gods so personable, and yet so alien, so foreign, so inhuman, that it’s hard not to be taken in by her unique depiction of these beings. Her depiction of the god’s lack of compassion especially drove through the fact that these beings were entirely different to us mortals, with a different set of values and even beliefs. In fact, they reminded me a little bit of the recent depiction in literature of the Fae in that sense—not only could the gods be mischievous, but also downright evil when it comes to mortal’s lives, and they couldn’t care less about their lives or the suffering they cause, because they’re immortal, and humans aren’t.
But Circe is different. She relates more to humans, to mortals, and even cares about them more and understands them more than her own immortal counterparts. When Circe finally meets Odysseus as he stumbles by her Island on his extremely long and difficult journey home back to Ithaca, her fate is finally set into motion. I loved Odysseus in this book and how multi-layered, complicated, and flawed he was, while still managing to be downright magnetic and even charming in his wit and mastery of words and schemes. He was one of Circe’s favorite mortals, and I could see one. It was tragic how his life turned out. Not just how it ended, but how his personality was ultimately affected by his journey back home. It was only one of the human tragedies depicted in this book that Circe cared about and understood, while the rest of the immortals didn’t.
I thought Circe’s character arc from naïve and insecure nymph to clever and brave witch was one of the best arcs I have seen in fiction in the last few years, and even though I didn’t really like her in the beginning, I ended up loving her at the end, much like Odysseus loved her and other mortals ended up loving her too. Her journey through motherhood I found especially compelling because of how she described it. She felt it was a battle because she had a difficult child, but it was a battle that she refused to give up on, and so she trod on.
The ending of the book manages to convey the mood surrounding the transition from Circe’s state of immortality to another state. Somehow as a reader, I managed to feel how the years of her immortality came to a closure, and how she embraced an altogether different kind of existence. And the fact that she did this by choice just made me love her all the more. Circe is not one of the great mythological characters of history, but Miller manages to make her one in this narrative, and it’s a tale that I won’t soon forget.