Isle Be There

Circe BY Madeline Miller. New York: Back Bay Books. 416 pages. $12.

The cover of Circe

It took me a while to get around to Circe (Back Bay Books, $15), Madeline Miller’s extremely popular 2018 novel told from the perspective of the island-dwelling witch from The Odyssey. Friends had raved about it circa its publication. I’d read one page and put it down, finding it too hard to get into the narrator’s formal, serious Ancient Greekness. Then, two years later, novels featuring contemporary people stopped being able to hold my attention. Characters went to bars and museums, rode the subway, walked around with their faces uncovered. I couldn’t relate. Time to read about an immortal demigoddess with the power to turn men into pigs!

As usual, I had managed to let a book’s popularity distract me from the possibility that it might be delightful. Circe, despite her seen-it-all attitude, is great company: long-suffering but never self-pitying, full of intriguing insights into the behavior of her fellow immortals. Her father, a Titan, and her mother, a naiad, don’t like her much, and neither do her brother or sister. As the immortal equivalent of a teenager, she finds herself exiled from her father’s kingdom to an island where she lives alone, save for some nymph servants. She tends herbs, makes potions, casts spells, weaves at a loom. Tame lions and wolves hang out at her feet like dogs and cats. On Aiaia, she is finally free to let her freak flag fly, and now the book hits its stride.

A group of sailors rape her, and she uses her rage to access a new level of spell-casting skill. As she watches their bodies split and swell horrifically into pig form, the book’s heightened tone threatens to shift into melodrama but never does. The quotidian nature of sexual violence speaks for itself. Miller doesn’t belabor the idea that Circe, though exceptional in many ways, faces universal woes. The only difference is the literal eternity she has to live with her trauma.

That same dynamic—extraordinary, but grounded in the universal—applies to Circe’s next defining experience, which is motherhood. Pregnant by Odysseus, she has crippling morning sickness, and sends the useless nymphs away so she can suffer in private. This is the first sign that the path ahead will be rocky, in a way that her supernatural powers can’t fully mitigate. Her son’s delivery is a textbook example of what my friends and I privately refer to as “the bad birth”—protracted labor that culminates in an emergency C-section, the worst of both worlds. She performs the surgery herself, and recovers immediately, but otherwise her experience is one that many women share, if not for the same reason—in this case, Athena, who bears Circe’s unborn child a grudge, prevents the goddess of childbirth from coming to assist her.

“The bad birth” is followed by what my friends and I refer to as “the bad time,” as in, “she’s having the bad time.” Some newborns sleep, and eat, and let you have a little bit of space to get your head and body back together after the rift in your personality and identity that has been occasioned by their existence. Others don’t. Baby Telegonus cries constantly and won’t sleep unless he’s in motion. Even though she doesn’t technically need to rest, Circe feels the psychic strain of caring for this roiling mass of need and vulnerability. “I thought of all those hours I had spent working my spells, singing, weaving. I felt their loss like a limb torn away. I told myself I even missed turning men to pigs, for at least that I had been good at. I wanted to hurl him from me, but instead I marched on in that darkness with him, back and forth before the waves, and at every step I yearned for my old life.”

This yearning to be free of her child is tempered, as is usually the case, by a love that’s equally potent. Her son’s mortality is her curse, and the situation is made more dire by the constant existential threat posed by Athena. Circe must rebuff the menace via a spell that requires her to constantly exert an effort of will simply to keep her son alive. This is fantastical, but all too familiar. A few weeks after my first son was born, my husband took him to a park two miles away without telling me. I was incensed; if I didn’t know where he was at all times, how could I, you know, keep him alive with the power of my mind?

When Telegonus is fully grown, he decides to leave the island and find his father and his destiny. Circe balks, but soon realizes that he’ll never be happy unless she lets him go. Their intense bond has been forged by that initial postpartum hell, which they have weathered together in solitude and pain. And now, after sixteen years of constant companionship, Circe finds herself alone at last, free to give herself completely to the solitary pursuits whose loss had once felt like losing a limb. “I had told myself . . . I would work at my spells from dawn until dusk, dig up roots and forget to eat, harvest the withy stems and weave baskets till they piled to the ceiling.” Instead, she gazes at the horizon, willing his sails back into view.

The first time I dropped my older son off at day care, I held back my own tears as he cried, then felt the thrill of freedom as I walked out the door, then sat at my desk looking at pictures of him—pictures I would not have had time to appreciate, of course, if he and his constant needs were there in the room with me. I have never loved my children more than in the moments right before and right after dropping them off at school or day care, and that burst of love is one of the things the pandemic stole from me. A minor loss, compared to life or livelihood, but still a loss.

Emily Gould is the author of Perfect Tunes (Simon & Schuster, 2020), Friendship (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), and And the Heart Says Whatever (Free Press, 2010).