Madeline Miller’s sophomore novel, Circe, is moving in both scale and depth. The story is Miller’s reimagining of the Greek mythology featured in Homer’s Odyssey, as told through the eyes of the witch, Circe. The book is a striking exploration of the universal struggle women face in claiming their power, as well as the suffering that unfolds when they are entrapped and the beauty that unfolds when they break free.
Having made the mistake of angering her father, Helios, by turning her mortal lover into a god (and then transforming the nymph he chose over her into a sea monster), Circe is banished to the isle of Aiaia. Initially, she finds a sort of solace there, but ultimately realizes that even there at the end of world she isn’t safe from assault in all forms, as both gods and men continue to involve her in their games.
Miller expertly displays the nuances and complexities of the human condition by imagining what may have motivated Circe to do the seemingly evil things she did (including turning sailors who were shipwrecked on her island into pigs). She invites us to consider the importance of what we don’t know when it comes to judging our fellow humans’ behaviors.
But it’s in Miller’s poignant descriptions of the complex emotions and experiences inherent in motherhood that we are blessed most by her talent with words. Upon seeing her sleeping child (a son she bore by Odysseus), Miller imbues Circe with:
“a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.”
Circe is a moving tale of the power of compassion, of personal growth, and ultimately of love. 5/5, highly recommend.