Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

I’ve had this one on my list(s) for a while now, but as it increasingly appeared in credits from books I enjoyed – as inspiration, as research, as most admired – I knew I needed to get to it sooner. Homegoing deserves the accolades. It’s both expansive and easy to read, in how beautifully it flows – although the subject matter is not generally easy.

There’s a helpful family tree in the front matter, as in These Ghosts are Family (which is one that refers to this book in an interview with the author at the end). This lets readers track the connections as we move through generations. Each chapter is titled for the character it focuses on, and each character appears in the family tree; they are featured chronologically across centuries. At the head of this tree is a woman called Maame who lived in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s. We slowly learn that she had two husbands and two daughters at two different points in her life in Fante and Asante territories respectively. The daughters, Esi and Effia, did not know about each other, and their lives led in different directions. Near the novel’s beginning they are found under the same roof but in very different circumstances: one as the wife of a white British slaver, the other imprisoned in the dungeon underground. One is able to stay in her home region (Gold Coast as a British colony), while the other is kidnapped and carried across an ocean to become a slave in America. Later chapters follow their descendants until more or less contemporary times – everyone on the family tree gets a focus chapter except for Maame herself, whose story we learn only in pieces. These lives are filled with color and detail and struggle and pain, and love and music and beauty; in every iteration they continue to witness racism, colorism and the enduring legacies of slavery and colonialism, in different ways. I of course failed to mark the quotation that said so eloquently how the same prejudices were ongoing but in subtler and more insidious ways in later times than they had been in slavery’s heyday.

Homegoing is a beautiful, absorbing novel. Every one of the featured lives is so finely wrought, I spent at least half the book lost in each of them individually; it took me most of the book to begin anticipating their connections, although I was aware of those connections all along. They are all filled with such detail and richness, but it is possible that earlier chapters stand alone more securely than later ones. Some readers call this a novel in connected stories, and I do feel that each character’s story is a whole work in itself. But there’s no question in my mind that it is more novel than collection.

Aside from realistic portrayals of lives across a remarkable span of years and locations, Gyasi also offers threads of something mythic or otherworldly: there are persistent suggestions that this family may be cursed by ill luck and fire, and its members may have a special gift of foresight. Indeed, some coincidences are difficult to explain. On the more real-world side, Homegoing is very much about the legacy of slavery from African roots to American “improvement” of the system. It has big thoughts and observations to make while still being first a story about individual people.

The New Yorker is rather harder on this book in Laura Miller’s review, and I confess that she has some points, particularly about typing in the American characters versus the African ones. The larger impression I walk away with is much more positive than Miller’s seems to have been. But I am entirely on board with her optimism about Gyasi’s future work.


Rating: 9 cocoa nuts.

These Ghosts Are Family by Maisie Card

This was a fascinating journey. These Ghosts Are Family follows a family for generations, from slavery in Jamaica, through emancipation and decades of struggle with old class systems, immigration to London and New York, through permutations of relations, including a fresh start with a new identity (or, if you like, identity theft). The timeline jumps around and the focus and point of view shift, so that readers see this extended family at different times and from different perspectives. Issues of class, race and colorism and the relationships between privileged and less privileged classes, including but not limited to enslavement, will be obvious themes; we know that rape and issues of gender arise under these conditions too. The characters are infinitely fascinating. I was not so much expecting the question of supernatural elements: duppies or ghosts and Ol’ Hige, “a Caribbean version of a vampire story.” By the book’s end, I was left reeling with all the possibilities. There is plenty of heaviness: children abused, spouses failing to see eye to eye, parents and children letting each other down. But there are some quietly loving relationships scattered throughout. As I close the final pages, I’m a bit at a loss because there’s so much to consider. (And because we ended with a decidedly weird trio of spooky vampire children living in the woods.)

The book begins with a family tree, which I did refer to throughout. It presented me with a confusion that was answered on the first page. I’m going to spoil that one here because, again, first page of the novel (and it’s also given away on the back of the book and in most blurbs): the aged Stanford Solomon reveals, on his deathbed, that in fact he is (or was) also Abel Paisley, presumed dead some thirty-five years ago, at which point he took the identity of his friend Stanford. “Stanford” has both a wife and daughter and another daughter out of wedlock, all in New York; Abel left behind a wife and two children in Jamaica when he supposedly died. Stanford/Abel’s revelation obviously affects those around him. But I’m going to diverge from the blurbs here, and say that this is not the event around which the book revolves, and by its end, Stanford is by no means the central character. Rather, he is one branch on the family tree that is the book’s center. He’s just one link, and I don’t think he earns the role the blurb says he plays. Rather, I find the book more about larger patterns – slavery, class and race and colorism following slavery, migration and immigration, gender roles, the persistent damages of all these institutions and systems, trauma, and family dynamics. It’s about the multiple generations of this single family, for sure, but their combined story is very much about those larger patterns and systems. There’s nothing preachy or intentional-feeling about this, but the Paisley/Stanford family is inextricable from larger issues. I put Stanford/Abel at its center only in that he opens the book and occurs at the more-or-less center of the family tree as we find it here. The book ends somewhere very different, and that feels right.

In between, the story is told by numerous voices spanning some 200 years. That multiplicity of voices was a great choice for this story. (I have just said the same about a brilliant novel whose review is still forthcoming: Lookout by Christine Byl.) I love the kaleidoscopic or triangulated perspective on events offered by the different views. And for a novel whose focus is so broad – generations of a family across continents, countries, and centuries – it makes sense to move around like this. I guess such a big story told by one voice (with some kind of time-traveling power, I suppose) would be a different kind of accomplishment, and I can imagine it done beautifully, but Card’s choice feels just perfect here. The multiple voices also allow her to give us different dialects, which add to the texture and richness of the whole.

This adventure into these varied lives is expertly done, not always comfortable because of the subject matter, but engrossing and well worth the immersive experience. Card is a talent.


Rating: 7 names.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

People who move to New York always make the same mistake… They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.

The year is 1924, and Charles Thomas Tester wouldn’t call himself a con man; he thinks of himself as an entertainer. He’s not much of a musician, unlike his beloved father, but he knows how to put on the right look and scrape a living where he can. It helps to leave Harlem, where he supports his father and himself in a tenement apartment, and travel to the likes of Red Hook and Flushing. There’s risk there for a Black man, but more to be gained, too. Charles plays off wealthier New Yorkers’ search for magic–until he gets into more than he’d bargained for. In Flatbush he meets a wealthy eccentric named Robert Suydam with ideas about how to change the world. An anxious, sensitive police detective and a burly bully of a private investigator are on the tail of the unlikely allies, Charles and Suydam; between them they will certainly change the shape of the world, in unexpected ways.

The Ballad of Black Tom has magic and race and racism and wishes and love and violence and simple street entertainers’ illusions. There are characters from different walks of life – I love the varieties of ethnic foods available in the Victoria Society. Charles Thomas Tester is both a straightforwardly relatable character – loves his father, just wants a little financial wiggle room – and a dangerous enigma. This book is short, but it casts a spell. Victor LaValle continues to intrigue me. Recall that I loved one book of his and couldn’t finish the next. This one is compelling. I have The Devil in Silver waiting on my shelf. We shall see.

Meanwhile, Black Tom will keep me thinking for a while – not least with its final prophecy.


Rating: 7 pages.

Galatea by Madeline Miller

Although I found Circe less mind-blowing than I did The Song of Achilles, I will still follow Madeline Miller anywhere. I was very excited about this new book, which is labeled as a short story, but packaged as a freestanding little hardback. The story is very short – just 50 pages plus an afterword.

50 little tiny pages

According to Wikipedia, “Galatea is a name popularly applied to the statue carved of ivory by Pygmalion of Cyprus, which then came to life in Greek mythology.” In Ovid’s version of the myth, in Metamorphoses (which Miller indicates is “almost solely” her source for this work), she does not have a name. Pygmalion is a sculptor so horrified by real, live women that he can only be happy with the ivory statue of one he creates for himself, in perfection and perfect, chaste silence; he prays to Venus for her to come alive, and she does, to bear him a child but (in Ovid’s telling) to remain silent and modest. (Delightfully, and disturbingly, in the poem “Pygmalion’s Bride” by Carol Ann Duffy in The World’s Wife, she defeats his sexual advances by pretending to reciprocate them.)

Here, Miller gives us Galatea’s first-person voice from the hospital room where she is institutionalized, imprisoned, on Pygmalion’s orders. He visits in order to fetishize and rape her. Having born him a daughter and seen how limited their child’s life will be with such a domineering, misogynistic father, Galatea has tried to escape him and save her daughter, but so far failed. When he tells her what his latest project is, however, she tries again.

In Miller’s writing, Galatea’s voice is lyrical and grim. “The door closed, and the room swelled around me like a bruise.” She handles her husband’s abuses with an impassive stoicism that reads as strength rather than stoniness, because she feels strongly toward her daughter (and hides well her disgust with Pygmalion). She is brave, clever, and grandly terrible, worth of Greek myth and the empowerment we want for her. This is a brief but powerful triumphant retelling of an upsetting myth. Miller is awesome and I will preorder anything she writes. Go read it now.


Rating: 8 cups of tea.

Gone Missing in Harlem by Karla FC Holloway

This one’s a bit genre-defying. I really enjoyed it. Gone Missing in Harlem looked like a mystery at its outset, but it turned out to be broader than that. Historical fiction, clearly: it’s set in Harlem during the Great Depression, with flashbacks to Carolina (North or South, I’m not sure we ever know), highlighting the Great Migration of Black Americans from the rural South to northern cities. It handles mental health issues in several threads, and the challenges of parenting through traumas and breaking cycles. It ranges widely.

We see the title event in the very first chapter. A young mother, Selma, parks her pram just outside a grocery for a very short time while she pays for some apples; when she comes out, it is discovered that her baby is gone. An uproar immediately ensues. Harlem’s residents are horrified, excited, titillated, and incensed at the lackluster response from the police department: the city is still reeling from the disappearance and death of the Lindbergh baby, and Harlem can easily see the difference in how a poor baby from their community is treated. We do have the city’s first Black policeman on the job (and with a fresh Black cadet in tow), and he is both clever and committed. But weeks and months pass, and Selma’s baby Chloe is not recovered.

One of the things I loved best about this book was the constant shifting of perspective. While I’m fairly certain we never get a first-person point of view, chapters switch focuses in close third person perspectives between a large number of characters: Selma; the police officer; Selma’s brother Percy (aka June Bug); their mother (a central figure), DeLilah, aka Lilah, Mama Lil, or Mrs. Mosby; several members of the wealthy white family Lilah works for; the social-climbing Black woman she works for later; a neighbor down the hall; and others. (The policeman and his apprentice form a delightful Holmes-and-Watson pair – indeed with reference to their famous counterparts – and appreciate libraries, librarians and book research most pleasingly.) This multiplicity of perspectives enriches the narrative like nothing else might have, and help take this story from the (deceptively simple) mystery it might have been to a whole complex tapestry of questions, in the best way. Class is arguably as important as race, and race is complicated by colorism. Several generations address the difficulties of parenting; the complexities of love, fear, and aspiration; and the importance of making a plan. As for that deceptively simple mystery, there is a big surprise near the novel’s end that had me entirely, literally slack-jawed. I did stumble upon a handful of grammatical errors that I wish had been caught in editing, but that’s a small issue (and likely only for a few readers). I’m very impressed at the absorbing story, the wealth of those multiple POVs, and the tender handling of a broad range of issues.


Rating: 7 needles.

Maximum Shelf: Clytemnestra by Costanza Casati

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 15, 2022.


“Kings are brilliant / mighty / godlike // Queens are deadly / shameless / accursed.” Such has been the literary fate of Clytemnestra–adulteress, wife and murderer of Agamemnon in the Ancient Greek canon. Costanza Casati’s debut, Clytemnestra, is a dynamic retelling of the story of the much-maligned Spartan princess, sister of Helen, queen of Mycenae, mother of Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes (and others). Aeschylus, Homer and Euripides generally portray Clytemnestra in a negative light, but Casati’s reframing–from her title character’s point of view–emphasizes the difficult circumstances that challenged a strong-willed woman in a time and place that did not reward such a quality. Clytemnestra is a masterpiece of justified rage on the protagonist’s part, and a subtly subversive revision of a story many readers know from a different perspective. She will be called ruthless, merciless, “cruel queen and unfaithful wife,” but viewed from another angle, Clytemnestra fights honorably for her own well-being and for that of the people she loves.

The events of Clytemnestra’s life are not much rearranged here. As a princess in the Spartan court, she is trained as a warrior and huntress, surrounded by violence and death even in her privilege to sit in the megaron with her father, King Tyndareus, where they hear the villagers’ requests. This upbringing emphasizes martial training, physical skill, obedience and the ability to suffer. Her first marriage, to Tantalus, was for love and was a meeting of minds, but it ended in murder and betrayal, and with a forced second marriage to the Mycenaean king, Agamemnon, whose brother Menelaus in parallel marries Helen. Clytemnestra’s later lover, the traitor Aegisthus, is a complicated, enigmatic character in his own right. This proud queen, treated as a pawn in political power struggles, wrestles to keep her dignity in the Mycenaean court under the brutalities of her husband, but never loses her sense of herself as a warrior and a survivor. The events of this novel close where Aeschylus’s Agamemnon opens, thereby gifting a complex backstory to a woman often portrayed as villain.

Clytemnestra dips its toes as well into the stories of the queen’s famous family members: her brothers Castor and Polydeuces, boxers and horsebreakers; her sister, Helen, whose legendary beauty led to the Trojan War; her mother, Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan (or was she raped?). Her children include Tantalus’s unnamed infant son; Iphigenia, sacrificed at Aulis to summon wind for the Greek ships on their way to Troy; and Electra and Orestes, whose stories expand only after these pages close. This Clytemnestra is very close and loyal to her siblings; family ties for better and for worse shape her decisions all her life, even at great distances. For instance, meeting a new face, she thinks of her siblings: “Helen would have charmed him with her beauty and subtle cleverness, softening him until he opened like a peach. Castor would have mocked him, pricked him with words like needles, until he talked.” Clytemnestra’s cousin is Penelope, eventually famous as Odysseus’s queen and faithful wife, in marked contrast to the Clytemnestra in traditional representations; here, again, the reader sees a new and complex side of a familiar character, as she is courted by the cunning Ithacan king.

The gods in this version are mere myth, not actors in real events; Clytemnestra, like her mother, is skeptical, even scornful of the gods and their followers. She understands that kings and not queens rule in her world, but she continues to demand the respect she deserves even when it’s unlikely she will get it, and consistently calls out the rapes and attempted rapes that often go unmarked in the courts and villages of both Sparta and Mycenae. This retelling is a deepening of Clytemnestra’s story and her character. Helen, her beloved sister, likewise grows more multifaceted in Casati’s nuanced novel, but the beautiful one is not gifted with physical prowess or the confidence of the fierier Clytemnestra: “Clytemnestra dances for herself; Helen dances for others.” Timandra, one of their younger sisters, is fierce like Clytemnestra, but with a different burden in their strict society. These female leads are glittering, glowering, admirable and sympathetic, and the result will reignite (or ignite) readers’ interest in the stories of ancient Greece and emphasize their relevance in any time.

Clytemnestra is a stunning, standout contribution to the growing genre of modern treatments of the Greek myths. Casati brings both a solid grounding in the canon and imaginative venturing into the inner workings of a woman who has long been famous but little understood. Her writing is gorgeously descriptive and emotive: “She thinks of those white flowers blooming against the rocks of the Ceadas. For years she wondered how they survived down there, among the corpses and darkness. But maybe this is how broken people keep living…. Outside the light is golden. It shines on them as if they were gods.” Casati’s Clytemnestra is modern in her staunch demands for dignity and respect, but believably rooted in ancient times. This is a necessary novel for fans of mythology, strong women, the pushing of boundaries and epic dramas of family, power and love.


Rating: 8 cuts.

Come back Friday for my interview with Casati.

rerun: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Fun fact: I interviewed Miller for the podcast Critical Wit, and that interview posted on the same day (May 31, 2012) that she won the Orange Prize for this novel, which was a fun piece of synchronicity for all of us, I think. That interview can be heard here.

This review originally posted on May 17, 2012.

I read this book in a day, rapt and tearful and awed. Madeline Miller, I love you. Write more, please.

I expect that most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story of the Trojan War, even if you never read the Iliad, yes? The Greeks sail to Troy in pursuit of Helen, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (that’s these ships!), the most beautiful woman in the world, stolen from her king-husband Menelaus by the Trojan prince Paris. They fight at the gates of Troy for ten years before Odysseus’s characteristically clever notion of the big wooden horse (the Trojan horse of idiom) wins the war for the Greeks. Achilles is a hero of the war, on the Greeks’ side. He had been sitting the war out in protest against an offense to his pride when his close friend (and, most scholars agree, lover) Patroclus goes into battle and is killed. In the opening scene of the Iliad, Achilles is mad with grief and rage, about to rush into battle, kill Hector, and be killed by Paris.

That’s the background. Miller, a scholar of ancient languages (including Greek) and theatre has written a novel from Patroclus’s point of view. This gave her quite a bit of leeway, since Patroclus is not given much coverage in Homer or in ancient myth generally; she got to do what she wanted with him. Here, we see him grow up from a boy: he was a disappointment to his father, then was exiled in dishonor and sent away to be fostered in another kingdom, where Achilles is the prince and heir. The two boys form a decidedly unlikely friendship, with Patroclus the dishonored and weak following in the footsteps of Achilles, whose future is prophesied to be something enormous: he will be Aristos Achaion, the greatest of the Greeks.

Patroclus joins Achilles in his studies and their bond grows closer until they become lovers. They are not eager to join the Greeks and sail to Troy to fight for another king’s wife, but circumstances (and Odysseus, the crafty one) conspire to see them off. From there, you can revisit my synopsis of the Iliad, above – except that we keep Patroclus’s perspective, which actually made the Trojan War that I thought I knew so well spring fresh from the page.

And that is one of the several strengths of this book: that an ancient myth that is familiar to many readers, like me, becomes so real, new, crisp and juicy in Miller’s hands. It definitely made me want to go back and reread the Iliad, as well as other cited works. (Check out the Character Glossary, whether you think you need it or not, for background as well as mentions of other books you’ll want to go find.) The myth of the Trojan War comes alive with Patroclus as it hasn’t before.

Another great strength is the emotional impact Miller achieves. This book is moving, sweet, heartfelt, powerful, in its tragedies as in its loving moments – and the tragedies are plentiful. There is visceral wrath in Achilles’s mother Thetis and her hatred of all mortals and Patroclus in particular; that emotion comes through just as strongly as the love that makes Patroclus put aside jealousy and envy, makes him put Achilles’s needs before his own. I noticed that the first-person voice of Patroclus rarely uses the name Achilles, but just refers to his lover as “he” – thus emphasizing the extent to which Achilles is the center of his world.

As I said at the start of this review, I want more of this! It’s so well done. If you’re taking requests, Ms. Miller, I would like to read a book about what happened to the happy family of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus following the conclusion of the Odyssey: how does Odysseus manage to gracefully step down from power and transfer to Telemachus without sacrificing any of his machismo? Reading The Song of Achilles raised this question for me – how a king could step down and preserve his dignity and quality of life. I wonder, too, whether Penelope ever gets grumpy about all the philandering Odysseus did along his homeward journey, while she was standing strong against the suitors.

In a nutshell, this retelling of the Trojan War and the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is lovely, loving, sweet and deeply emotional; it preserves the grand, sweeping scale and feeling of humanity and drama in the original, but brings it freshly alive in an appealingly different format. The Song of Achilles made me sigh and think and cry, and I wanted more when it was all gone. This may very well be the best book I’ve read in 2012.


Rating: a rare 10 loving caresses.

Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning

This gorgeously evocative novel of the early-1900s American West takes on issues of race, class, labor and women’s rights via a remarkable young woman’s coming of age.

“Strikes are all the same. Same songs. Same reasons. Same hope and rage. In those years it was struggle and strife all over the mountains, in the cities and on the plains of the country, wherever there was industry or toil.” Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning (Whitegirl; My Notorious Life) is an expansive novel of passions: love, beauty, suffering; struggles for labor rights, women’s equality and the rights of formerly enslaved people. Set in the early-1900s Colorado mountains, this enthralling story stars Sylvie Pelletier, who travels west at age 17 to find the world broader, more lovely and more terrible than she’d imagined. Gilded Mountain tracks her coming of age and the troubles of her family and the marble miners of Moonstone.

Sylvie’s father, Jacques, is beloved by his family and his coworkers in the marble quarry, who call him “Frenchy,” but Sylvie’s mother fears he will again meet danger with his union organizing. Sylvie graduates from high school and apprentices as “printer’s devil” to the freethinking K.T. Redmond, who further shocks townspeople by being a newspaperwoman. As conditions in the mines deteriorate and K.T. nurtures Sylvie’s rebellious streak, the young protagonist is also invited into the household of Company owner Duke Padgett and his wife, the Countess. Their royal titles are self-assigned, but their wealth is real. The Duke’s son, Jace, becomes something of a romantic interest, but there is also United Mine Workers’ representative George Lonahan. Sylvie is torn between her principles and love for her family, her class and her boss, and the temptations of the other life. “I forgot to observe with the sharp eyes of a printer’s devil because my sight was dulled by sugar and awe,” she realizes. “My loyalties gnarled and snared me.”

Gilded Mountain is an ambitious novel, swelling to encompass labor rights (complete with Pinkerton Detective Agency goons), women’s rights, the societal role of the free press, the rights of Black Americans immediately following the Civil War, lynching, immigration and more. Starring real characters from history (union organizer Mother Jones, Belgium’s King Leopold II), it contains romance, historical fiction and inspired, high-minded thinking on important issues. Moonstone, Colo., is a fictionalized composite town, but its marble mining and the standard operating procedures of the Company are well based in historical fact. It also contains lovely writing about the natural world: “[T]he Diamond River overflowed its banks and rushed downhill, rooks sang in the trees, and leaves unfurled like new little salads on the ends of their branches. A corduroy of greens softened the hard folds of the mountains, and the meadows bloomed with swaths of blue columbine and dashes of yellow sneezeweed.” The result is a painfully beautiful novel of big ideals, heartbreaks and tragedies, sewn together by an admirable and unforgettable heroine.


This review originally ran in the September 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 maraschino cherries.

The White Hare by Jane Johnson

Love and mourning, betrayal and hope, ancient legends and modern conflicts come together in the atmospheric Cornish countryside in this engrossing novel.

Jane Johnson (The Sea Gate; The Tenth Gift) transports readers to rural Cornwall in the years just after World War II in The White Hare, a fanciful novel of family, village life, history, mythology and more.

In the opening pages, first-person narrator Mila, her daughter, Janey, and her mother, Magda, arrive at their new home, a grand but dilapidated Cornish seaside estate, in the summer of 1954. Timid Mila is fleeing an unnamed scandal in London; the irascible Magda has taken charge of their little troop. Janey, age five, is eager to explore her new surroundings, accompanied by Rabbit, her stuffed toy and best friend. The estate, purchased with unexplained but apparently significant funds, has a mysterious history; locals make foreboding remarks and then clam up. “Best not talk about unlucky things too much, or you may attract unwanted attention,” Mila is warned. Magda plans to refurbish and open a grand guest house, with Mila to cook and clean. Immediately and surprisingly latching on to their odd household is Jack Lord, a local who is (like all these characters) unforthcoming about his past, but handy with repairs and good with high-spirited, imaginative, clever Janey. Things go bump in the night, there are hints of ghosts and old crimes, and the vicar in town is inexplicably, aggressively sinister.

Mila and her parents immigrated from Poland just before the war, so she must deal with several layers of outsider status in this insular and remote setting. Janey and Rabbit are oddly at home in the natural world and its legends, while Mila struggles with local culture; her mother’s hostility is considerable, but Jack’s influence is calming, if enigmatic. The White Hare is jam-packed with slowly released secrets: those between mothers and daughters, those kept by the villagers, and those locked away within traumatized minds. It addresses class and war, mysticism and folklore, the persistent influence of history and bloodshed; it dabbles in romance, but remains centrally concerned with the relationships of family, community and place. With lush descriptions of fashion, food and especially nature, Johnson’s prose appeals to sentiment and expertly evokes an often-menacing mood. The intrepid, uncanny Janey and her Rabbit, however, joined by several wise women of the village, offer hope that Mila and her family can move into a happier future in the end. The White Hare is enthralling, as filled with secret passages as the stately home in which it’s set.


This review originally ran in the August 22, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 Latin phrases.

Maximum Shelf: Ithaca by Claire North

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 22, 2022.


Claire North (The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August; The Pursuit of William Abbey) offers a new take on a familiar tale with Ithaca, a richly imagined, thought-provoking novel of Penelope’s trials during the Trojan War and its aftermath. The forgotten or misrepresented women and goddesses of ancient Greece bring joy, sorrow, humor and wit.

A lengthy space of time falls between The Iliad‘s story of the Trojan War’s conclusion and The Odyssey‘s story of Odysseus’s protracted homecoming. On the island of Ithaca while its king, Odysseus, is absent, Penelope, his queen, rules uncertainly, beset by unruly suitors wishing to become king, and the hopes and ambitions of her son, Telemachus, an infant when his father went to war and a young adult by the time he returns. Into this gap comes Ithaca, which follows the challenges faced by Penelope and the other women–queens, wives, mothers, goddesses, slaves–who surround her and fight their own often overlooked battles.

The Homeric myths are well-known and familiar territories for many readers and indeed many writers, who have reimagined and retold these stories in abundance. But despite the richness of such retellings, Penelope remains an enigma, and North’s contribution to the genre is unique and welcome. While the Ithacan queen is in some respects its protagonist, Ithaca is narrated by the goddess Hera, wife (and sister) to Zeus, and frequently represented as bitter, jealous and vengeful. Hera’s interest in Penelope is self-serving: as the goddess of women, wives, queens and motherhood, she resents the ways in which Penelope is disregarded by her male counselors, her absent husband, her suitors and her son. While Hera’s stepdaughter, Athena, is chiefly concerned with the hero Odysseus, Hera is entirely here for the women. In fact, it is not Penelope whose fate concerns her first: “No one ever said the gods did not have favourites, and it is Clytemnestra I love best, my queen above all, the one who would be free.”

Clytemnestra’s crime of husband-murder is reframed by the recounted sins of Agamemnon, and when the murderess-queen hides on Ithaca, readers are reminded that she and Penelope are cousins. Next arrive Orestes and Elektra, who seek to avenge their father’s death; Orestes is near-mute and disengaged, while his sister is a magnetic, powerful force, barely remembering that she must at least seem to defer to the will of a man: “aware that she has been perhaps a little too forceful… [she] adds, ‘My brother will issue his commands shortly.’ ” Clever Penelope is more practiced at the trick of subtly sliding her wise points into conversations while seeming to demur. Telemachus is a bit silly, a boy hoping to be a man. Odysseus is entirely off-screen, “groan[ing] in the nymph’s pearly bed.” Both Artemis and Athena make appearances, annoying their stepmother with their own agendas.

Penelope is of course harassed by the unwelcome suitors who place the queen in a sort of stalemate, as she can neither accept their offers of marriage (both because Odysseus may still be living, and because to accept one would be to provoke the others quite possibly to war) nor send them away (because of the culturally sacred host’s obligation). In this version, Penelope is additionally beset by pirates attacking her island nation–pirates dressed as Illyrians but wielding the short swords of Greeks. There seems to be intrigue afoot, offering a whodunit mystery subplot for Penelope and her subtle female counselors (in contrast to her blustering male ones) to investigate. Women warriors lurk in the shadows of this Ithaca. And North does not forget the maids, who are also slaves, and also in some cases Trojans: “Death to all the Greeks,” one of them repeatedly mutters under her breath. The maids are frequently bedmates of the suitors; but to what end, and with what choice in the matter?

Thus is Ithaca the story not only of Penelope, Hera and other queens and goddesses, but of less famed women as well, down to the teenaged village huntress who opens these pages. Hera is quick to remind her audience that the stories that get passed down are written by poets, whose narratives may be purchased, and who rarely notice the contributions of women: “That girl is not remembered now”; “No poet will ever do her homage.” “Freedom only increased the efficacy of her work, though there is not a single poet in all of Greece who would dare breathe of such an outcome.” Hera’s voice is humorous, whimsical, imperious, frequently scornful. But she is also surprisingly easily cowed by the other Olympians, knowing that Zeus holds power over her. “I was a queen of women once, before my husband bound me with chains and made me a queen of wives.” While this story is on its face about Penelope, Clytemnestra, Elektra and the rest, Hera is an engrossing and masterful character in her narration.

North’s prose is clever, funny and as wise as Penelope herself, with an eye for pleasing images as well as deeper meanings. In her capable hands, this ancient landscape is both fresh and timely. Ithaca is the first in a trilogy, and having come to know this three-dimensional Penelope, North’s readers will eagerly await the next two installments.


Rating: 8 dreams.

Come back Monday for my interview with North.

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