Review: Circe

Title: Circe

Author: Madeleine Miller

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Released: 2018

Rating: ★★★★★

“The grudges of gods are as deathless as their flesh.”

Madeleine Miller, Circe

*This review contains spoilers*

Madeleine Miller’s award-winning second novel, Circe, is an absolute spectacle of a story. A deep-dive into the psyche of one of The Odyssey‘s most intriguing players, the book follows the life of the infamous sorceress Circe, from her lonely youth in the halls of her Titan father Helios to her equally lonely exile on the uninhabited island of Aiaia. With each turn of the narrative, we see Circe’s relationship with mortals, nymphs, gods, and even her own divinity change and adapt in much the same way as she magically changes men into gods, gods into monsters, and monstrous men into pigs with her latent powers.

After enjoying The Song of Achilles earlier this year, I was thrilled to dive into the hype of Miller’s second novel. Every moment I spent reading Circe dripped with the energy of “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned,” drawing me in from chapter one with our protagonist’s tale of revenge and redemption. Unloved by her godly family for the lack of an extraordinary prophesy placed upon her at birth, Circe eventually finds comfort in the company of a mortal fisherman, Glaucos, for his earthlier disposition than the divinities who she lives amongst. Knowing she cannot love a mortal, Circe discovers her powers for the first time and transforms Glaucos into a god. Now living as a divine being, Glaucos loses the human traits Circe loved so dearly, and scorns her as the rest of the pantheon does. Abandoned, ridiculed, and unloved, Circe meets her exile to the shores of Aiaia with a betrayed and beaten heart.

The rest of the book explores how Circe relates to the variety of visitors she receives on her island. First, the wayward nymphs sent away as punishment for disobedience by their godly parents, whose presence irritates Circe as she learns how to harness her abilities. She encounters gods who she takes as lovers, and men who she learns not to trust. Always the other, Circe becomes cold and distant from anyone who visits her island. A deity spurned by all others, but not quite a mortal woman, Circe never feels understood or accepted in her immortality. This is the crux of our protagonist’s tale. Her in-between status never allowing her to find the love and companionship she has yearned for since childhood.

Circe (The Sorceress), John William Waterhouse, 1911

The arrival of Odysseus and his crew to Aiaia sparks a new chapter for Circe’s bleeding heart. While never quite reaching love between the two, the relationship between Circe and Odysseus opens the sorceress’s heart to accepting that not all who meet her mean harm upon her. From this point we see her grow as an individual, embracing her human qualities, becoming gentler to those around her. The birth of her son Telegonus accentuates this newfound care for others, as her goal becomes to protect him from the world of the gods. Indeed, after gaining the companionship of her son’s half-brother Telemachus and his widowed mother Penelope, Circe decides that gods do not share the same passion for life, or the desire to see loved ones grow and change, as Circe herself has learned to do, and thus she chooses to strip herself of her divinity in the final pages of the novel.

Thus Circe’s story cycles from her first act of magic of changing a mortal to a god in an attempt to win his love, to changing herself from god to mortal so she can live the life she desires for herself. It is the journey of a woman born into villainy, overcoming her own fear of the world and those in it to win her own happiness. Circe is a masterpiece of fiction and easily one of the best books I have read this year so far. I cannot wait for more of Miller’s mastery of words.

Published by Leigh Briar

Leigh Briar lives and writes on Kaurna land. Her current Honours thesis in creative writing explores the evolving representation of transgender narratives in YA fiction. In 2021 her short story 'Entirely Perfect in (Almost) Every Way' was highly commended in the Feast Festival Short Story Competition. ‘Last Call’, a collaborative short story anthology produced by the Flinders creative writing class of 2021 and featuring Leigh’s story ‘Dreams in the Deep’ is due to be published late 2022 by Glimmer Press.

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