For Greek mythology nerds — or even just anyone forced to read “The Odyssey” in school — the name Circe is likely to ring only vague bells. Wasn’t she a witch on a deserted island, we might recall, who turned Odysseus’ men into swine?

In Madeline Miller’s new novel, “Circe,” though, Odysseus doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the nearly 400 pages. It turns out (as it always does) that Circe was much more than just a footnote in the saga of one of mythology’s great male heroes.

As with Miller’s 2012 novel, “The Song of Achilles,” “Circe” illuminates the drama of these infamous characters’ inner lives, and the details of their day-to-day. It’s easy to see what attracted Miller to Circe’s story. She appears at the periphery of many of the most vivid myths, from Jason and Medea to the tale of the Minotaur. And the story of Circe’s entanglement with Odysseus lasts far beyond the narrative of “The Odyssey,” making for compelling material to revisit. But ultimately it’s as a character that Circe stands apart.

Growing up amid the “gilded detritus” of a bustling world of nymphs and powerful gods, Circe feels ugly and useless, with none of her nymph mother’s beauty and charm, or her sun-god father’s power.

One day, Prometheus is brought to her father’s hall to be publicly whipped for giving mortals the secret to making fire. Circe brings him a cup of nectar, and shyly wonders why he has transgressed.

Prometheus tells her, “Not every god need be the same.” After she is exiled to an island for practicing sorcery, this becomes the lesson by which Circe lives.

The novel is at its most incisive when Circe must reckon with worlds in which she does not quite belong. She is at odds with the greater deities, who are wary of her witchcraft; her relatives are frequent sources of malevolent power that intrude upon her solitude. As a deity, she is not fated to last as Odysseus’ lover when he washes up on her island on his long route home. As a mother to a demigod, she is beset by the disorientation that all new mothers experience, compounded by her own immortality, which will protect her, but not her son, from the ravages of pain and time.

At one point during the tender year that Odysseus stays with her on her island, Circe wonders how to treat him: “Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? Those could not still be the only choices.”

Through her elegant, psychologically acute prose, Miller gives us a rich female character who inhabits the spaces in between.

 

Colleen Abel is the author of the poetry collection “Remake,” and lives in Tulsa, Okla., where she is a 2017-2018 Tulsa Artist Fellow.

Circe
By: Madeline Miller.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 393 pages, $27.