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Madeline Miller – Circe

“You are wise,” he said.

“If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.”

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse. Because she is neither particularly beautiful, nor born with apparent godlike abilities, she is largely ignored by her family. She therefore seeks the company of humans, and falls in love with a fisherman. Since he is a regular person with a limited life span, and she a goddess with eternal life, she tries to persuade her grandmother, Tethys, to turn him into a god. Tethys will not be persuaded, so Circe finds a way to make him a God. The fisherman takes a liking to his new status as a god and he quickly understands that he doesn’t have to limit himself to a quiet life with Circe, and chooses another woman. To get revenge, Circe transforms this woman into a cruel monster, and when it comes to light that she is the culprit behind this transformation, her family realizes that she has the power of witchcraft. Such powers are unusual among the gods and they fear such abilities. For that reason, they punish Circe by banishing her to a deserted island where she is to live alone all her long life. After a while, though, she begins to get visitors.

But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

We follow Circe from her upbringing and through the next 1000 years. On the island she finds friendship and love, but she also experiences abuse and becomes vengeful. She only gets permission to leave her island once to help her sister in labour, but otherwise she does not leave the island for a thousand years. She is a central figure in many stories from Greek mythology and through her we are introduced to gods and titans, to the minotaur, to Odyssevs and to a number of other creatures. It almost seems like Miller has sewn together a number of stories from Greek mythology and made them into a novel, and if that was her plan it has been executed brilliantly. It does not feel like she’s struggling to combine something that doesn’t naturally belong together. The story has a clear plot following Circe and tracking her evolution: a woman who becomes an outcast because she’s different, who isn’t pretty and talented, who’s ridiculed and mistreated, but who fights back, finds her place in the world and won’t let herself be broken. Despite the well-known backdrop, the story seems original.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

I am especially impressed with the character development in the book. Circe was a weak child seeking validation from everyone around her, without getting it. Being rejected by her first crush leads to a childish and vengeful reaction that shows she is not a particularly stable and strong woman at this point. She harbors the belief that at least her brother cares for her, but she gradually learns that her family cares for nothing but themselves. Therefore she develops a thick skin, doesn’t let anyone in, and even goes so far as to make a sport out of literally transforming men trying to exploit her into pigs. Eventually she meets people who seek out her company without an agenda who doesn’t mistreat her, which slowly teaches her to trust and get better at judging actions rather than pre-judging people. At the end of the book, she has become a good example of what a strong, confident woman can be. But it did take her a thousand years to get there. Although her elongated life span and her witchcraft doesn’t scream realism, I think the character development seems very realistic, and I like how the author always makes me understand why she is the way she is, even though I don’t always like her for it. Miller shows all sides of her, including those that are far from flattering.

So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.

“You have always been the worst of my children,” he said. “Be sure to not dishonor me.”

“I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.”

I read this novel during a particularly pleasant summer and I have to say that lounging in the sun and reading about Greek Mythology is a good mix. I’ll definitely be reading The Song of Achilles when we finally get a glimpse of summer again. Unfortunately, that might take a few years…

Hilary McKay – The Skylark’s War

I discovered the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards about a week ago, in others words, way too late to read much from it before they announce the winners. To my surprise I noticed that I have already read two of the four nominees for the Costa Novel Award, and I own one of the two I haven’t read. I have also, quite coincidentally, recently bought one of the nominees for the Costa First Novel Award, and I found two more as audiobooks. The first audiobook I chose to listen to was The Skylark’s War, and I loved it from the start.

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We follow Clarry, a young woman born at the start of the 20th century, from her birth until she is an adult. Her mother dies a few days after giving birth to her, and she is told that she is the reason for her mother’s death. Her father is not very fatherly and tries to convince his parents to take care of both Clarry and her older brother Peter. They refuse, saying that they are old and that it is quite enough for them to be bringing up Rupert, Clarry and Peter’s cousin, but they let the children visit them in Cornwall every summer. At home they are neglected, and as a girl, nothing much is expected of Clarry other than not being a nuisance. Since he is a boy, Peter gets to go to good schools and is expected to get good grades and work hard to one day be able to support a family. Unlike his father, he recognizes Clarry’s intellect, and makes her do his homework with him, making sure she is able to learn and grow, hoping for more for her than to just find a husband who can provide for her. They both live for the summers in Cornwall, when they can do as they please in a lovely environment, and get to spend time with their cousin. Except for Peter, Rupert is the only one who pays any attention to Clarry, so she comes to view Cornwall as a wonderful place where she is loved. As they get older, the reader knows World War I is looming, we know the idyllic summers won’t last, even though the characters don’t.

In a way this seems like a simple story about growing up, the characters discovering who they are and how they want their lives to be. And it is that. But because of the time period it’s set in it is also a harrowing tale of war and how it affects everyone in different ways. Although the start is very sad and there is darkness in the family because of the mother’s death and the father’s detachment, the story seems both charming and in a way innocent, and since it is a children’s novel, it can’t be too graphic or direct. But in classic children’s books charm and sadness often goes hand in hand. When reading this book I was reminded of the atmosphere and the theme of abandonment and loneliness in The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and the curiosity and the will to be something more than what’s expected in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I even saw a bit of Dickens in this book, with it’s quirky characters and atmospheric descriptions of the lives they were leading.

Clarry has to live with the fact that she robbed her father and brother of her mother. She has to struggle to be seen in a society that normally only cares about what boys and men want. We see her frustrations and we follow her failures and her victories. The author balances this by also giving us the story of Peter and Rupert, two boys who have to struggle to live up to the expectations people have of them, who aren’t really allowed to choose their own paths, and who has to fight hard if they are to control their own lives. Peter is so against the plans made for him at one point that he purposefully hurts himself in order to avoid having to do as he’s told. And it doesn’t even change things for very long. Rupert wants to do his patriotic duty and go to war, but his family is dead set against it. They won’t allow it, but of course, they have limited ways of stopping him. Certain scenes from the war are described in a more gruesome way than I expected in a children’s novel, but it is effective and I think necessary to give a small understanding of what the soldiers went though. Even more important, though, is the descriptions of what the war does to both the ones who fight in it, and the ones standing on the sidelines waiting either for their loved ones to come home, or for a telegram. McKay captures beautifully how it affects different people in different ways, and how damaging it can be for the survivors who have to live with the memories of the dead, of the hunger and pain and strain of being in the trenches.

This was a gorgeous book from start to finish, one I think I would have treasured when I was younger, and that I still treasure as an adult. One I certainly will read again at some point. I listened to the audio version and the reader was also a part of enhancing the reading experience for me, as she was very engaging.