Ithaca: An engrossing story

Ithaca by Claire North science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIthaca by Claire North

Ithaca by Claire North science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIthaca (2022), by Claire North, is another in a recent spate line of Greek myth retellings, with the source material here being The Odyssey and the House of Atreus storyline (Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, Orestes). North greatly narrows the focus here in setting, time, and plot, lasering in what was happening at the periphery or in the gaps of those epic tales, giving voice especially though not solely to the women on the edges of those stories. It’s a wonderfully voiced, thoughtful reimagining story and a strong entry point into a new series.

That fantastically wry and sharp voice belongs to Hera, who narrates the book from her godly perch, able to see all and transport herself wherever necessary. The bite in her voice makes itself known immediately, as when she describes Ithaca as “a thoroughly backwards wretched place” and labels Athena a “priggish little madam.” These early lines set a pattern, as most of those she names throughout the book come off poorly: Horus is an “interloping little twerp,” her husband Zeus a cheating hypocrite, Achilles a “whiny little mummy’s boy,” Agamemnon the “butcher of Troy,” Athena “smug and preening,” Jason a “little shit.” As for the poets, well, they’re all a bunch of liars — they do not, for instance, “sing of massacres,” and so, Hera assures us, “What you think you know of the last heroes of Greece, you do not know at all.”

Hera, though, “will tell you the truth … will tell those stories that only the women tell,” since as Athena says (approvingly), “The poets don’t sing about childbirth … whether a mother’s milk flows easy or slow … The only songs that are sung in the palace of kings are of the men who make something of themselves … Who the fuck cares about the mothers?”

Hera cares. And in Hera’s narration it is the mothers, and women in general who (mostly) come off the best, the women whom Hera has an eye and an affinity for, in particular the three great queens of Greece: Penelope, Clytemnestra, and Helen, though especially Clytemnestra, “my truest queen, my beautiful one, my lady of the blade … Clytemnestra [who] I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

The fear that there will be no more queens after them is mostly what drives Hera’s actions in the novel, out of her love for the three and out of her own experiences, having herself been “stripped of honor, of power, and of that fire that should be mine…” Of course, anyone who knows the stories knows it doesn’t end well for all of them.

Claire North

Claire North

But until then, what we get is an engrossing story that focuses most of its time on Penelope’s situation on Ithaca, which is growing ever more desperate as the suitors are getting weary of her unwillingness to declare her long-missing husband dead (he’s currently on Calypso’s Island having lots of nymphy sex) and choose amongst them for a husband. Recent deadly raids of coastal villages and the increasing truculence of her son Telemachus further complicate matters. And most dangerous of all is the arrival on her island of the three from the House of Atreus — Clytemnestra in flight after killing her husband Agamemnon and Electra and Orestes in pursuit, with Orestes aiming to kill his mother, not simply to avenge his father but to ensure his own kingship, especially with his greedy uncle Menelaus eyeing expansion. What is compelling in all this is not only how Penelope tries to solve her many problems, but the ways in which she must conceal even the attempts to do so, since as she tells one of her women, “the greatest power we women can own is that we take in secret.” This obscuring of action is mirrored by Hera as well, for she cannot do anything to draw the attention of Zeus or Poseidon to Ithaca. She fears, even, to catch the interested eye of Athena and Artemis (their relationships are prickly at best).

North intertwines other stories as well — Clytemnestra’s backstory and attempt to escape Ithaca, Electra’s maneuverings to install her brother in power, Telemachus coming into his manhood, the changing relationships amongst the trio of goddesses, and more. All of them are engaging and stimulating, with both echoes and oppositions amongst the stories, the characters, the situations. While several battles occur, the tension is mostly interpersonal or political: a taut confrontation between Penelope and one of the more powerful suitors, a meeting between Hera and Athena, making this a more character-oriented novel rather than an action-oriented one. And while Hera’s godly perch, sharp tone, and the overall style of the novel can somewhat distance readers from at least some of the characters, most will find it hard to not to be fully taken in by Hera and Penelope from the start and others by the end as they get their own moments in the narrative spotlight.

The prose is sometimes elevated, sometimes earthy (see Jason as “that little shit”) and always matched precisely to the speaker and occasion. It is also often moving, particularly in its vivid depiction of the treatment of women by men, but also in its depiction of relationships between parents and their children or between women, or its exploration of how women can or cannot wield power.

All of this — the plotting, the characterization, the prose — builds to an emotionally powerful conclusion, one that that brings resolution to some of the issues (and that resolution may be only temporary), keeps other up in the air, and adds new ones. Odysseus has yet to return, one strand but only one of the Atreus story comes to an end, and Penelope remains on Ithaca, even more alone than she was at the start.

If Ithaca isn’t in my top tier of Greek retellings with Miller’s Circe or Barker’s Silence of the Girls, I’d rate it above other such works like A Thousand Ships or House of Names. Even knowing how some of the rest of the tale must go, readers will be eager for North to continue the story.

Published in September 2022. Seventeen years ago, King Odysseus sailed to war with Troy, taking with him every man of fighting age from the island of Ithaca. None of them has returned, and the women of Ithaca have been left behind to run the kingdom. Penelope was barely into womanhood when she wed Odysseus. While he lived, her position was secure. But now, years on, speculation is mounting that her husband is dead, and suitors are beginning to knock at her door. No one man is strong enough to claim Odysseus’ empty throne — not yet. But everyone waits for the balance of power to tip, and Penelope knows that any choice she makes could plunge Ithaca into bloody civil war. Only through cunning, wit, and her trusted circle of maids, can she maintain the tenuous peace needed for the kingdom to survive. This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women — and their goddesses — that will change the course of the world.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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