Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Another book that I read last year, had the review ready for a long time, but only posting now. Please excuse the sense of time.

Before I start off with my thoughts about the story, I’d just like to take a minute and express my love and admiration for this cover. A wonderful gold-tinted combination of black and orange, Circe has one of the most beautiful covers I’ve ever laid eyes on. This might have been one of the reasons why I was actually terrified of starting the book – me being scared that the story wouldn’t actually live up to the beauty of the cover. Another thought that crossed my mind was: What if I unintentionally destroy it?

Now that I have completed reading it, my thoughts are all over the place. But two of them were constant and firm: Of course I didn’t destroy the book and I need to find my heart where it shattered.

Circe is the story of Circe (obviously), the daughter of the Titan Helios. She was considered to be wretched because she neither looked nor sounded like her family. She was made fun of, leered at, and taken down at every point in her life. But she is wronged, she tries to do something about it but is branded names. So she takes to witchcraft and is exiled to an island called Aiaia. She meets men who try to take advantage of her, nymphs who are sent to her for being “bad”, and Odysseus on his way back with Troy, who probably changed her life. Whether this will bring her any love or solace forms the rest of the story.

Where do I begin with expressing myself about this book? The apprehension that I felt before I started reading it evaporated just a few pages in. It was replaced by anger and annoyance at what were supposed to be higher powers in the grand scheme of things. The selfishness, pride, and ego dripping from each of their actions makes you feel like you want to just wring your hands in wrath. Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do.

You know what the best part about reading this book is? It is the explanation as to why Gods look down on mortals. Gods like to get everything at the snap of their fingers. Just willing something to happen will make it happen. So when they see mortals toiling over things that they wouldn’t give a second thought to, they look at is in disdain. As if we aren’t worthy enough because we are willing to work for the happiness that we want in our lives. And that is one of the biggest reason why I am not religious.

At this point, I realize that I’ve been reading a lot of Indian and Greek mythology lately. But while I like reading about Indian mythology – could be because it’s a rediscovery of all the stories I’ve heard since I was a kid – Greek mythology intrigues me. I like reading about it, about all the vague names I read in English classes in school. But with each new facet and each new character that I discover, I realize that the Greek Gods and mythological creatures were vain and selfish. When I read them as a kid, I remember enjoying them though I didn’t retain much. But now, I retain things better, and think: Why? It isn’t that Indian mythology doesn’t have such characters, but they’re few and far between, in my opinion. Plus, it is also the shock factor that comes with reading such myths as an adult and thinking, I cannot believe any power would do that.

As I read Circe, I tried to recollect anything about her and the only thing I could remember was her name. But as I went through it, I thought, ‘Oh yes!’ and ‘I completely forgot about that!’

It’s an ode to Madeline Miller’s wonderful writing that she manages to convey so much within just a few words. She made me feel a host of emotions that I wasn’t prepared for. I sympathized with Circe on a level that I cannot explain. But let me try. To be ignored by the people you love, to be abandoned by someone who you had gotten close to in favor of ‘greener pastures’, to be taken advantage of whenever the need arises, to be asked ‘to understand’ and not be understood – yes. Yes, I know what it’s like. And yes, that is one of the biggest reasons why I just want to dive into the pages and give Circe a big hug.

It totally makes sense why Circe would turn to witchcraft. And before anyone raises a hue and cry, it isn’t all just waving a hand and turning men into pigs (which she does, but to those who deserve it). She finds solace in there. Her blood sings when she is around herbs and the words come to her like no other. Her will, she discovers, is strong, because witchcraft isn’t for the weak of will. How can I not love such a woman – a goddess, however small she may be – and want to hug her and protect her? Even if I am a mere mortal?

Words are a source of immeasurable power, or the like. And reading Circe made me realize the truth of this statement in ways that I never thought were possible. The power of identification, more than anything. I wouldn’t wish that on any human, and here, a goddess bears the brunt of it all. The Gods are ruthless and know how to play their little games, which are anything but little.

Madeline Miller has spun this game of Greek Gods into a story that is admirably goosebump-inducing. The Titans and the Olympians engaged in an eternal battle, pulling into their midst those who would have preferred to stay out, those who are bound by oaths and will most likely lose everything they have if they refuse – this is how armies are created and destroyed. Because it was either the whim of a God/Goddess or because one of the mortals they are patrons of are wronged. How else would you explain the Trojan War?

If you have read The Song of Achilles, the only advantage you have is you’ll know what happens before Odysseus sails to Aiaia (unintentionally, of course). Even if you haven’t read it, there’s no loss because you will be able to follow the story and the characters pretty clearly. This is all from Circe’s perspective and that is exactly how it progresses, minimizing everything else that’s untouched by her.

Circe is a must, must read. If not for Greek mythology, then to understand the mental workings of the emotionally downtrodden, even if she happens to be a smaller goddess/witch with powers.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Picture Courtesy: Amazon India.

If you’d like to buy this book after reading my review, please do so by clicking my Amazon Affiliate link given below. The price remains the same for you but I get a small commission off of every purchase you make.

Here’s the link: Circe by Madeline Miller

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