Circe is the second novel by Madeline Miller. It is loosely connected to her first, The Song of Achilles.
Finished on: 19.10.2022
Content Note: rape, abuse
Circe is the daughter of the titan Helios and the naiad Perse, but she is somewhat of an outcast among her family, ridiculed for her broken voice, her unattractiveness and her powerlessness. She has resigned herself to this state of things – until she meets the human Glaucos and falls in love. She starts to dream, albeit dreams for him at first. Through those dreams, she discovers her powers, but once she uses them against another nymph, punishment awaits her.
Circe is a feminist reinterpretation of a character that is mostly known for being a villain. The novel gives her more personal history, good reasons for her behavior and above all sympathy. All of ths is really, really great. But what is greatest is that Circe is a novel about healing from past harm so you can move on with your life. And that is simply beautiful.
I don’t know that much about Greek mythology, so – probably like most people – I knew Circe from the Odyssey and not much else. Given that I was really quite taken with the version of Odysseus we got in Song of Achilles, I was really looking forward to this part of the story. I thought that it would take up a lot more of the book, but really, it’s just at the very end. This version of Odysseus was not quite as fascinating as the one in Song of Achilles, by the way, probably because Circe was less fascinated with him, and he had grown older in a very unforgiving way between the two books.
Anyhow, as I said, this is not Odysseus’ book, albeit told through Circe’s eyes, it is very much her book. And that was even better than I had thought I would get. She is just a fantastic character, and she gets to grow so much – from abused wallflower to revenge goddess to finally just her own person who can let herself be happy, I just wanted to cheer for her basically all the time.
Her upbringing among the nymphs was painfully lonely and at times really hard to read because I just ached for her so much. When she is exiled to Aeaea, the kind of loneliness she finds there in her isolation is a palpable relief that gives her a chance to start a healing process. The few visitors she gets, and the one time she gets to leave to go to her sister Pasiphae and her husband Minos push her further and make sure that she doesn’t freeze. And just when things settle in an almost comfortable way, she is re-traumatized – but with very different weapons at her disposal. And while it first all seems like a step backward, she finally gets to this point where she can be truly happy.
It’s a wonderful trajectory for a character and it will speak to anybody who has had to heal from something (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t?). Circe encounters great characters along the way (I particularly loved Daedalus and Penelope) and with each encounter, she matures and learns to see the world and herself in a new way.
Miller takes all of this, wraps it in beautiful language and tells a truly engaging story with it. I was completely engrossed and can’t wait to read her next book.