Genre: Historical Fiction
Content warnings: death, war, violence
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: empowering stories, female-focused historical fiction, something that makes you think and a good cry
‘Once upon a time, there were three queens in Greece. One was chaste and pure, one a temptress whore, one a murderous hag.’
Ever since my early high school Percy Jackson days, I have been a little obsessed with ancient Greek myth retellings. The genre has experienced a boom in the last few years, especially retellings targeted at adults. These include The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeliene Miller and Stephen Fry’s Troy, Mythos and Heroes collections. So when I saw Ithaca, I jumped at the chance to read it, and it did not disappoint.
Ithaca tells the story of Penelope, Clytemnestra and Elektra, the last Queens of Greece, during the fallout after the Trojan war. This is an interesting premise because in the original Odyssey, very little is said about Penelope. Her role in the story is limited to that of the dutiful wife refusing to marry the many suitors who come to her, weaving a shroud by day and unpicking it by night, waiting faithfully for her husband to return. For ten years. As a result of this limited information, Claire North had almost total creative licence over the plot of Ithaca.
North uses this creative licence to explore a number of questions the original epics don’t answer. What happens when an entire demographic leaves a society, never to return? How does the day-to-day business change? Who fills the power void? How does the collective trauma of war affect a society? How does a society recover economically and socially? How long do the bonds of war really last?
In this version, Penelope’s suitors are little more than a political and economic inconvenience. They party and feast, draining the economy of Ithaca. Penelope doesn’t choose not to remarry because she has faith in Odysseus returning, though she certainly hopes he will, but instead is very aware of the political ramifications if she were to choose a suitor. This results in an eight-year long political stalemate after the fall of Troy, which is only broken when Ithaca is attacked by pirates. Penelope must find a way to defend Ithaca after all her soldiers and men of fighting age never returned from war. Simultaneously, queen Clytemnestra is on the run, hiding in Ithaca for the crime of killing her husband while her daughter, Elektra, is living in Penelope’s palace, her soldiers on the hunt for her mother.
I found the many facets of the plot incredibly engaging. Although the bones of this story are familiar, the added details, such as Penelope’s wit, the exploration of the role of the women in Ithaca and the relationship between queens overturned my expectations. The familiarity of Odysseus’s story enabled North to create what was predominantly a character study. The narrative was also predominantly well paced, though there was a section in the middle that felt unnecessarily slow.
I was further impressed by the clear and detailed research that went into the novel. North knew every aspect of the original myths and filled the story with subtle and not-so-subtle references to events that had already passed, myths occurring side-by-side and many of the more niche Greek stories. As a result, North’s Ithaca feels vivid and real. The stakes felt high, and it was easy to imagine the many places she mentions and follow the huge cast of characters.
‘I am the goddess of queens, wives and women; my tasks may be thankless, but I perform them nonetheless.’
One of the most striking elements of this novel was its prose and narration. The prose was beautiful and elegant, making it easy and enjoyable to read.
The novel was narrated from the point of view of the goddess Hera, an interesting choice. At first I was confused about this choice, seeing as Hera’s presence is limited in the Iliad and the Odyssey, but it began to make sense as the focus of the novel zoomed in on the role of wives and queens in ancient Greece, presenting Hera as a fourth queen.
I enjoyed the way the novel highlighted Hera’s role in the Greek pantheon, giving her ambitions and personality, which she tended to lack in the original myths. There has been a recent cultural movement to re-examine ancient Greek mythological figures, who for a long time, were dismissed as evil, and I liked that Hera has been included here. This also served to emphasise the messages of the novel. In particular, the spotlight given to overlooked women, transforming them from shallow caricatures into multidimensional characters. This narrator’s perspective combined the character intimacy of first person point of view with Hera’s omniscience as a goddess, which brought in scenes and characters from all over Greece that would have been impossible if the perspective was limited to Penelope.
On the other hand, at many points this narration felt biased. Whilst I understand that to some extent Hera is meant to be an unreliable narrator, the story felt clouded by her jealousy and bitterness, often veering away from positive, empowering messages towards hating other women for ambition and success. Though this may be an accurate reflection of Hera’s mythological personality, it was limited to narrative overtones, and I felt that this removed some of the power of the plot, which revolves around more complex relationships between women.
Hera’s character also occasionally overshadowed Penelope, drawing the focus to her rather than the actual main character of the novel. However, this bothered me less than I would have expected because it felt more like world building and adding depth to mythology than losing focus. I also enjoyed this narrative frame as the strength of the perspective made me feel actively immersed in the world rather than a passive observer. It felt like I was watching events from a distance, but every so often, Hera, as the narrator, could intervene.
I mostly enjoyed the uniqueness of Hera’s narration, but North did seem to veer towards erasing or apologising for the less sympathetic aspects of Hera’s historical character. In one myth, Hera did quite literally throw her child, Hephaestus, off a cliff, and she caused Heracles’ insanity as punishment for the sins of his father.
The characterisation of others within the novel was excellent. Each character was introduced as they were portrayed in the original myths and then given new depth, motivations and flaws. Penelope in particular grew from a grieving pseudo-widow to an incredibly intelligent ruler, who used her subtlety and intellect to ensure her kingdom maintained its strength whilst retaining the facade of being merely the ‘wife of Odysseus’. Furthermore, despite her strength of character and intellect, she is still given emotional range, particularly in regards to her son whom she both loves and dislikes as a person. These complex emotions conflict and combine to propel the plot and create incredible depth of character.
Overall, Ithaca was an amazing book and, with the exception of a few elements, I could not have enjoyed the experience more.
Final Rating: 4 stars.