Chair of the Judges, Professor Kate Williams, said: “It’s a fantastic shortlist; exciting, vibrant, adventurous. We fell totally in love with these books and the amazing worlds they created. These books are fiction at its best – brilliant, courageous and utterly captivating.”
In her award-winning debut The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller seized the greatest saga from Homer’s Iliad and made Greek myth live again. Earlier this year, Miller brought her singular vision to the story of Circe, antiquity’s wildest rebel girl. A sun-god’s daughter with a mortal voice, who turns men into swine and rivals into terrible monsters, Circe is a woman of awesome power and human tenderness. Booksellers and customers alike were swept along by Miller’s moving, exuberant novel, translating the male-centred fantasies of myth into something startlingly feminine, real and awake.
Miller’s bestselling debut, The Song of Achilles, won breathless endorsements from writers such as Donna Tartt and Ann Patchett, and won the 2012 Orange prize. Readers and critics hailed its mesmerising prose, pace and epic vision. Circe, her latest novel based on another figure from Greek mythology, received equally high praise. This is a remarkable achievement. It is also baffling. Circe has little narrative drive and is episodic and linear, but Miller has clearly captured the imagination of a vast loyal readership. It presumably helps if you are already a lover of Greek myths, gods and monsters, passion and bloodshed. The Song of Achilles was a big hit; Circe has been, too. But if this is sorcery, I am, sadly, immune.
“Circe” is very pleasurable to read, combining lively versions of familiar tales (like the birth of the Minotaur or the arrival of Odysseus and his men on Circe’s island) and snippets of other, related standards... with a highly psychologized, redemptive and ultimately exculpatory account of the protagonist herself. That said, Daniel Mendelsohn’s assessment of Miller’s earlier book pertains, perhaps even more so in this instance: It’s a hybrid entity, inserting strains of popular romance and specifically human emotion into the lives of the gods. Idiosyncrasies in the prose reflect this uneasy mixture...In spite of these occasional infelicities and awkwardnesses, “Circe” will surely delight readers new to the witch’s stories as it will many who remember her role in the Greek myths of their childhood: Like a good children’s book, it engrosses and races along at a clip, eliciting excitement and emotion along the way.
Some will consider her prose too purple, her plotting too neat, but others will find it supple, pitched in a register that bridges man and myth. At one point, Odysseus’s mind is described as being like “the spiral shell. Always another curve out of sight”. Miller has taken the familiar materials of character, and wrought some satisfying turns of her own...
Written in prose that ripples with a gleaming hyperbole befitting the epic nature of the source material, there is nothing inaccessible or antiquated about either Circe or her adventures. Miller has effected a transformation just as impressive as any of her heroine’s own: she’s turned an ancient tale of female subjugation into one of empowerment and courage full of contemporary resonances.
In her Circe, Miller has made a collage out of a variety of source materials – from Ovid to Homer to another lost epic, the Telegony – but the guiding instinct here is to re-present the classics from the perspective of the women involved in them, and to do so in a way that makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance. If you read this book expecting a masterpiece to rival the originals, you’ll be disappointed; Circe is, instead, a romp, an airy delight, a novel to be gobbled greedily in a single sitting.