ITHACA by Claire North (BUDDY READ BOOK REVIEW)
Nils and Beth were very kindly sent proofs of Claire North’s upcoming novel Ithaca from Nazia at Orbit Books, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity for another buddy read!
From the multi-award-winning author Claire North comes a daring reimagining that breathes life into ancient myth and gives voice to the women who stand defiant in a world ruled by ruthless men. It’s time for the women of Ithaca to tell their tale . . . .
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.
Ithaca is expected for release on 6th September 2022 and is available to pre-order HERE
What were your expectations for this novel?
Nils: Well, I haven’t actually read many Greek Mythological Retellings such as The Song of Achilles and Circe, so I was looking forward to diving into Ithaca to widen my familiarity with the Greek Gods and the people they had influence over. I had very little knowledge of Penelope, which I’m guessing is why North decided to write her tale and I’m all for forgotten voices being heard, so I expected this to be a powerful read.
Beth: Yes Nils! There’s a wonderful surge of this at the moment – Madeline Miller’s Circe, Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne and Elektra, Pat Barker’s The Women of Troy and The Silence of the Girls, Jessie Burton’s Medusa… women have always had a particularly tough time of it in Greek myth, so there’s a lot of love for their stories to be told. I’ve read Circe and Ariadne, and I feel North’s Ithaca is very much the crest of this wave, taking the mythology coursing through Circe, the historical feel of Ariadne, and combining the two in what was a moving read.
Nils: That’s fantastic to hear, it’s so important to have these Greek female figures represented because there clearly are a lot of them. Akin to authors such as Alix E Harrow, I know North is a powerhouse for feminism and giving female characters the agency they deserve. Having now finished the novel overall I think Ithaca surpassed my expectations because although it is a powerful feminist retelling, it is also extremely entertaining.
Beth: I’d previously only read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by North, so I was expecting a thought provoking read with exceptional prose. Knowing it was the story of Penelope, I was hoping for a feminist exploration of her tale. My hopes and expectations were far exceeded by Ithaca!
What were your first impressions?
Nils: Given that we open the novel to a raid by pirates, which served to hook me right in, I expected quite a bit of action throughout. Beth did warn me this would be more of a reflective, philosophical tale rather than one of action, but I still felt a touch disappointed by the initial first few chapters where the story focused more on Penelope’s suitors.
Beth: I was worried what you’d think of this kind of read, knowing you usually love your high action epics!
Nils: I do! That’s definitely my usual preference. It’s nice to try something slightly different though, and I’m glad I read Ithaca.
So our story begins with Penelope’s husband, Odysseus, presumed dead in Troy, which meant that the island of Ithaca was in a vulnerable state. Penelope doesn’t want to remarry, she doesn’t want a King threatening her son’s eventual rule, but she does want to see her people’s safety, though this is no easy task as although she is a Queen, she has very little power. At first I found it a little hard to keep up with all the characters, a lot of whom were unfamiliar to me, though it wasn’t long until I began to enjoy the political aspects, the plans that Penelope and her maids began forming, and most of all I loved Hera’s narration.
Beth: I loved the politicking! I had a similar issue with the characters, but I wondered if this was deliberate? There were plenty of characters who were vibrant, distinctive; the characters I struggled a little more with differentiating were the councillors and suitors – the men.
Nils: Excellent point Beth, it was mostly the male suitors I struggled to keep up with too.
Beth: I believe if North wanted them to be distinguishable, she’d have written them as such. Instead it was very much as if one man was interchangeable with another.
Nils: Very true.
This may be Penelope’s story, but it is told by the goddess Hera, and she didn’t really think that highly of the men trying to manipulate and Penelope, did she? I loved how her narrative voice was laced with so much wit and cynicism:
“Some people can nonchalantly lean against a narrow wall, casual as a cat, as though to say – oh, is it me you were looking for, lucky you? Medon cannot. He is graceful as a fart, which perhaps is what Odysseus liked about him.”
This was one of the first lines from Hera to make me really laugh.
Beth: I absolutely loved Hera. I loved that we didn’t immediately know it was her, I loved how sarcastic and humorous she was, I loved how fickle and emotional she often was, I loved how vulnerable and bitter she was… all whilst telling the story of other women. It’s a true testament to North’s incredible character portrayal and writing. Hera has always been portrayed as this harpish wife who takes revenge on those (many many) people her husband betrays her with. There never seems much sympathy for Hera. She’s the ideal voice for the mis- and under- represented.
“That’s all right, I breathe, squeezing her hand in mine. For some silence is weakness; for a great queen it is a weapon. You are most great, most great, my love, most great above them all.”
Had you read anything by Claire North before? How did it compare?
Nils: I’ve only read The Pursuit of William Abbey, which was a historical fantasy. In terms of the narrative it was completely different as it followed a young doctor who witnesses a boy murdered by white colonists, and is then subsequently haunted by the boy’s shadow for standing by and not intervening. The prose was in some ways identical, atmospheric, emotive and almost poetic, yet I found Ithaca a much less dense read because of the humour and obviously the subject matter being far less dark. Yet both books deliver a powerful message, and they both deal with the injustice in our history.
Beth: The only other book of North’s I’ve read is The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; it was very different to Ithaca, and sounds different again to The Pursuit of William Abbey. It’s quite a philosophical read; Harry August is reincarnated each time he dies and starts his life over again, but is able to remember his past lives. It’s a really thought-provoking read, to the extent that years later, it’s still very much in mind. I think the same will be true for Ithaca; although very different in plot and theme and execution, there’s just something about North’s story-telling that stays with you.
What did you make of the various themes throughout the book: motherhood, feminism, power, abuse?
Beth: Plot-wise, there isn’t a great deal going on in the novel, but oh my days the undercurrents are very strong, aren’t they!
Nils: Absolutely, and that’s what is so powerful about this novel. Take this quote for instance:
“From what I can tell, there are only two kinds of men in Ithaca. Old men cowering in their corners, and boys queuing to get between your legs.”
“That is an excellent assessment of the manhood of Ithaca.”
Although this is a humorous take on the perception of the men of Ithaca, it holds so many truths. North does present to us men who physically or sexually abuse, sons who show little love or respect for their mothers, suitors who wish to take power and riches for themselves, and a young boy determined to prove his masculinity whilst being overwhelmed by fear inside. Pride was their biggest downfall. Whereas on the other side, we are presented with intelligent, capable women who on the outside have to behave in a subservient manner, whilst underneath it is clear their anger boils. The theme of feminism is brought out by North showing us different ways in which these women strike back.
Beth: Excellent points Nils. Just as a content warning, there isn’t any explicit sexual abuse, but there are many references to historic sexual abuse.
I think the island of Ithaca posed an interesting question in what happens to a place when all the men leave? Every man of a fighting age left seventeen years ago with Odysseus to fight in Troy. I was fascinated by this society which had such a hole in it, and the ways in which North addressed it.
Nils: Absolutely, and I was fascinated by the way North explores various themes in great detail throughout, a lot of which was heartbreaking to see. I think the theme of motherhood was one which left the biggest impact on me, the strained relationship between Penelope and Telemachus and also Clytemnestra and her children, Elektra and Orestes, were perhaps some of the most memorable scenes for me. How must it have felt to have your own children look down upon you? To want to see you stripped of power you rightly deserve? What did you think, Beth?
Beth: As much as this is a book about feminism – what the women manage to achieve through subtlety for the protection of themselves and the island, what it takes to be a woman and her various roles in this world – it also has a great deal to say of masculinity. Of the attitudes and behaviour of the men, of their foibles and weaknesses, but what masculinity means in this world. Telemachus’ drive to be brave and protect his land, and live up to the hero status of his father. His home is full of boys barely older than him vying for the hand of his mother, and he is powerless against them. Moving against them would be unwise politically, and so he feels robbed of his masculinity, in his purpose of protecting his mother. He then turns against his mother in his attempt to appear “manly” and “heroic”, for in this world they are one and the same.
Nils: Yes, this is exactly what Telemachus’ downfall is! He’s driven by an ideology of perceived ‘masculinity’ he envisions his father had, or would expect his son to have. Yet he’s caught between the ploy of all these other men who he knows far outmatch him in leadership and battle skills. That doesn’t excuse how he treats Penelope in my eyes, but North does show us his dilemma too. To listen to his mother’s council would display weakness, and turning against his mother leaves him without the guidance he so sorely needs.
Beth: Likewise Orestes’ relationship with his mother. In order to become king and prove his “manliness”, he must kill his mother in punishment for murdering his father. But he loves his mother. Orestes is the physical manifestation of the idea that to be a man you cannot love your mother. In doing so, he draws the attention of the Furies; and so to be a man is also to be doomed.
Let’s discuss the characters! Who were your favourites? Which side characters stood out to you the most?
Beth: For me, Penelope was hands down my favourite. My perception of her from other stories has always been of a figure of pity, left behind whilst her husband is “trapped” on an island with a sexy witch, plagued by men who only want her as a means to the throne. She epitomises that damned if you do damned if you don’t stance that women always seem to end up in no matter what role they attempt to hold. In being a good mother, she can’t be a good queen, in being a good queen, she can’t be a good mother, if she surrenders to the suitors, she’s a whore and a faithless wife, in holding them off she’s an obstinate woman who won’t see sense. There is no outcome for her in which she comes out favourably, in which she can be respected. And yet despite all this, she makes things happen. She is clever, and cunning, and protects her island and her son, whilst the men think they are the ones to have succeeded, thus protecting herself also. She was an incredibly complex character. I particularly loved seeing her snatch moments of agency in what was such a restricting world.
Nils: Wholeheartedly agree with you Beth. Penelope is a fantastically woven intricate character. It was an absolute joy to see her outsmart suitors such as Andraemon and to see his reaction at being outplayed by a woman. As you said Beth, at every turn she is faced with hard choices, even to the point where she has to choose between the life of her cousin, Clytemnestra, and the safety of Ithaca. She’s always faced with no-win situations but never shows despair. She is a true Queen.
Beth: I found Clytemnestra another heartbreaking character and situation. I didn’t particularly like her, her treatment of Penelope, but again Penelope’s strength shone out at those instances, she rose above it all. I loved this line Hera shared with us from Penelope’s past:
In the end, the bullies grew bored of singing at stone, and Odysseus sat by her side and said: “It is futile to mock the ocean, is it not?” and she looked up, and though she was silent, there was that in the corner of her mouth that seemed to agree.
Another stand-out character for me was Kenamon. He was something like a breath of fresh air in that musty palace, something new who heralded a change. If Penelope did have to end up with someone, although it would never have been him, as he was an Egyptian and the Greeks probably wouldn’t have stood for that, I wish it could have been him.
Nils: Ah my beloved Kenamon, I definitely wanted to see him and Penelope together too, but like you said, that could never be. Kenamon was the only man within that palace who showed any kind of decency, who thought before reacting, who would have been the best influence on Telemachus, and having at least one male character to root for was definitely a welcomed addition.
Beth: Out of the suitors I thought Amphinomous was a similar character, that he perhaps had the strength of character to one day become a man like Kenamon. He was a figure the other suitors mocked out of jealousy, but he was never quite strong enough to do the right thing he knew needed doing.
Nils: My standout favourite character though was Hera, who was an absolutely superb choice of narrator as she is able to look down upon Ithaca and view all the plots unfolding. She offers moments of revelation, the truth of what characters are thinking versus what they are saying, she offers well needed backstories to a lot of the characters, but most of all her sarcasm and cynicism as she casts a critical eye was a delight to read. In a lot of ways she felt akin to Penelope, Zues’s shadow lingered over Hera in the same way Odysseus’s legacy hung over Penelope. Being a Goddess meant as little as being a Queen and both these women had to devise subtle ways to change the course of events.
Beth: I was not expecting this book to be as funny as it was, Hera’s sarcasm was brilliant!
Athena sits and hoots like an absolute bloody idiot, an owl upon the blackened branch of an ancient withered tree. Hoot bloody hoot she goes…
Nils: Beth, that moment where the raiders attacked and Hera tried to warn the people in subtle ways was funny, wasn’t it?
Beth: That part was fantastic! We had a lot of Whatsapp conversations about Hera and how funny she was, you particularly liked her face palming at their stupidity, didn’t you?
Nils: I did! Because for a Goddess to facepalm was utterly ridiculous, but yeah, their stupid was facepalm worthy!
Other characters which stood out to me were Eos, and Autonoe, Penelope’s closest maids. I loved their humour, especially at the beginning when they were feigning mourning the absence of Odysseus! I also thoroughly enjoyed Priene’s scenes, a fierce warrior in her own right and a means to empower Penelope’s women, to teach them her skills so they could fight back when the time arose. Death to all the Greeks may have been her mantra, but she was willing to bend this to help some Greeks kill other Greeks, and I kind of liked her philosophy there.
Beth: I loved Autonoe! I loved the way she would subtly undermine the men by playing her lyre at opportune moments. Like an ancient form of trolling:
Peisenor stands silent and grey as the old man shouts. Medon waits; Aegyptius fumes but gives no answer. Autonoe seeks another note, and it lands, by total chance it would appear, like strange punctuation every time Polybus seeks to draw a breath, until finally he rounds on her and barks: “Will you cease your picking?!”
What did you make of Elektra, Nils? I have Jennifer Saint’s Elektra, and oddly, North’s portrayal of her has made me want to read Saint’s book, although I imagine they’ll probably be quite different!
Nils: Oh Elektra, our strong-headed Elektra! Ok, so at first I didn’t like her much, her attitude towards her mother Clytemnestra, really frustrated me. Yet towards the end I began to understand her character, I began to see that beneath her hard exterior she feared a life of being married off to a man chosen by her uncle and becoming inferior and insignificant.
Beth: I found her so interesting, the ways in which she was clearly the one in charge and used her brother as a shield. She was another example of the ways in which women can wield power; Penelope quietly and hidden from the shadows, Clytemnestra boldly out in the open whilst her husband is away, and Elektra, the master pulling the strings of another. How amazing was it when she put the suitors in their place?
What are your overall impressions of the book?
Nils: Although the beginning was a slow start for me, it wasn’t long until I fell in love with Penelope’s tale. If you’re looking for a read with an array of different representations of strong females, this is the one. Ithaca weaves a mesmerising tapestry where forgotten, seemingly insignificant women are justly given a voice, all it needs is an audience to listen. And I’m glad I did.
Beth: North breathes new life into an ancient story you would think had nothing left to tell. Instead, she shines a light on all the stories that were always there but never told. She gives voice to the voiceless and their message was a joy to read. This is a story as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, as witty as it is intelligent. If you’re going to delve into Greek-retellings, let it absolutely be this one.
Nils: Perfectly put Beth!
Quotes taken from an Uncorrected Proof and may be subject to change