CANONGATE £12/£11 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
CANONGATE £12/£11 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood

Weight, by Jeanette Winterson

What kind of a hero chases after fruit?

In the mischievously titled The Penelopiad, Atwood, with typical audacity, repositions The Odyssey from the viewpoint of Penelope, Odysseus's wife. She is left behind with their infant son on rocky, inhospitable Ithaca while her husband, heroic at the siege of Troy, takes the best part of a decade to find his way home. In the ensuing years their boy Telemachus develops from a suspicious child into a disgruntled teenager and slow-burning sociopath, and Penelope, having through sheer hard work successfully maintained Odysseus's kingdom, is importuned by scores of would-be suitors eager to siphon off her wealth.

Atwood introduces a new and significant angle to Penelope's narrative - the insistent chorus of her 12 maids. Complicit in their mistress's plans to foil the suitors, they are subsequently summarily hanged by Odysseus on his return, as part of his bloody revenge. The distressing image of their execution ("for a little while their feet twitched, but not for very long") recurs throughout Atwood's account, as in turn she utilises poetry, burlesque, mock trial and, less successfully, dour sociological tract. Penelope herself is depicted as less faithful wife than pragmatic survivor, all the while sustaining a satisfyingly bitchy feud with her "intolerably beautiful" cousin Helen of Troy, one of the intense female rivalries which litter Atwood's fiction. (Atwood seems firmly on Penelope's side, but Helen comes across as a lot more fun.) As for Odysseus, he and his reunited wife are doomed to an afterlife of wandering uneasily through interminable fields of asphodel, haunted by the shadows of unexpiated guilt.

If Atwood's approach is efficiently rigorous, Winterson's Weight, the myth of Atlas and Heracles, is warmer and wittier, at least on the surface. "I'm telling you stories: trust me" is Winterson's familiar mantra, and here she concocts a comedy of opposites: the amiable Titan, Atlas (who just so happens to have led a rebellion against the Olympians and lost), and Heracles, a swaggering lout ("I was a bit of a braggart in my youth: killed everything, shagged what was left, ate the rest") on his way to polish off the 11th of his 12 labours.

Theirs is an unlikely, mutual need: banished from the guardianship of his beloved Garden of the Hesperides, Atlas is condemned to bear the world on his back for eternity. Heracles is required to steal the golden apples from that garden ("what kind of a hero chases after fruit?" he muses) but he cannot actually pluck them from the tree himself. Offering to shoulder Atlas's load, he then shamelessly tricks him into taking the burden back once the fruit is in his grasp.

There is a semblance of morality here, even among amoral super-beings: Atlas's impassive suffering renders him an emblem of quiet integrity; and the cunning Heracles cannot, it ultimately turns out, outwit his prophesied death. Winterson's wordplay is as arch and baroque as ever, yet tends to lapse into autobiographical strutting and an over-reliance on the metaphor of responsibility. A whimsical ending trades dexterity for clumsiness and mars an otherwise controlled, enjoyably bawdy piece.

Where both writers excel, however, is in a strong evocation of the abhorrent nature of war and of casual slaughter. Winterson's descriptions of Heracles' boorish killing of the Amazon Hippolyte and the gods' agonising punishment of Prometheus are visceral yet deeply empathetic. But although Weight is a more fluid, accessible read, it is Atwood's "pretty maids all in a row" which linger to trouble the mind, feet twitching in perpetuity. Above all, these vibrant reimaginings indicate that larger than life stories will always be ripe for inventive plundering.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’