Ithaca by Claire North


It was Dorothy’s mention of this book that drew me to it. The characters are familiar:  Hera tells the story of the struggles Penelope had while Odysseus was making his 10-year-long trek back from the Trojan War. As if holding off the suitors who wanted to occupy his throne weren’t enough, Penelope had to cope with Elektra and Orestes showing up looking for their mother Clytemnestra so they could kill her.

I read a bit about this book and saw it was referred to as one of the genre that retell stories from Greek mythology. I had remembered that Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was the second book I wrote about in this blog. Back then I was succinct: “Whimsical look at the return of Odysseus.  Terrific.” I later remembered Colm Toibin’s wonderful House of Names. I am enthusiastic about this one too.

Hera is the goddess and protector of women and family; she is the wife and sister of Zeus and has many cranky comments about others on Olympus, in particular Athena. In this book she is an observer, though she intervenes occasionally, but must be careful not to incur the wrath of Zeus or others.

Hera sets the scene for us, eighteen years after Odysseus sailed to Troy to make war and this quote gives a taste of Hera’s voice:

Above it all:  the palace of Odysseus. It was the palace of Laertes for a while, and I have no doubt the old man wanted it to remain known by that glorious name, his legacy carved into stone — an Argonaut, no less, a man who once sailed, under my banner, to fetch the Golden Fleece, before that little shit Jason betrayed me.

Here Hera is explaining her view of the events to Athena:

Of the three queens of Greece, Helen betrayed her throne by choosing instead to love as a woman might. Clytemnestra, who chose to be a woman, a mother, a lover, and a queen, burnt the brightest and could not live long being so many things at once, too beautiful and great for this earth. But Penelope — Penelope is the one who sacrifices all, to be a queen and nothing more. This too, though it wounds me, though I wish it were any other way…this too I can love.

I read this book very slowly, enjoying the adventures. Several times the nearby islands off the west coast of Greece were mentioned, including Zakynthos, an island I visited while on a biking trip in Greece. I have a beloved memory of lunching on cheese, bread, and olives and then napping under an olive tree during the ride I made that day.

Claire North, Ithaca, Redhook, 2022, 391 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available in the public library.

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