Penelope’s Web: Christopher Rush

★★★

I was drawn towards this book in the library by a kind of magnetic field, as usually happens with books about Troy. I’d never heard of Christopher Rush before, but I was tempted by the sound of a novel that retold the story of the Odyssey and Iliad from different perspectives, focusing on the way that stories ennoble and refine the hard, unpalatable facts of real life. The concept is intelligent, but the language is occasionally unremittingly filthy and the attitude to women is (perhaps unsurprisingly for soldiers in Bronze Age Greece) dismally misogynistic. While I don’t for a minute suggest that the author shares the views of his characters, I found it very hard to warm to a book in which women are seen as having only one function.

At its heart, Rush’s novel is a clever meditation on the art of storytelling. We see Odysseus’ story from three points of view, woven neatly together like the web in the title. First there is Odysseus himself: down-to-earth, crude, cunning but wise as well, a soldier, an ‘everyman’, stuck in a war he didn’t ask for and doesn’t believe in, led by superiors he can’t bring himself to respect. For Odysseus and his fellow Greeks, there are only two things that make life bearable: the exhilaration of killing (the death stroke cleaving the flesh, the blood spraying across the face) and the ravaging of a woman’s body (the words ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’ and ‘rape’ are among the most common in the book). I’ve never been at war, of course, and I don’t know any soldiers, especially not Bronze Age ones, but this feels… plausible, as the way that brutalised men think when they’re alone and their only hope of survival lies in destroying others. Odysseus and his companions speak not in the high-blown phrases of Homer, but in short, sharp, contemporary bursts of speech, peppered with modern army slang – FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), CFB (clear as a fucking bell), and so forth.

But this ragtag of men aren’t suitable subjects for legend. And that’s where the next perspective comes in. Penelope, Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, weaves the story of Troy into a magnificent web (I imagined it rather like the Bayeux tapestry). Along the way, she ennobles her husband’s experience. He and his fellow leaders speak poetry rather than prose; their deeds become godlike; and the gods themselves appear to explain reversals of fortune or good luck. Penelope’s own prejudices against Helen, and against Troy, are woven into the web. Thus the web becomes both a physical object and a metaphor for a story being woven out of fragments of reality. Odysseus, who comments upon his wife’s reading of events, is amused by the grand speeches her heroes make in the midst of battle and baffled – but impressed – by the idea of a great wooden horse. But he appreciates the role of posterity in making things, and men, seem better than they were – in giving Troy a golden gleam to its name, rather than showing it for what it was: a nakedly ambitious land-grab, led by a fool and a cuckold. And she makes Odysseus into a hero, a model of striving, a faithful husband undermined by circumstances. Odysseus, a wise if not virtuous husband, knows when to let her believe what she wants.

The third and final viewpoint is that of the ‘omniscient narrator’. These tend to be the scene-setting sections, although it isn’t always entirely clear where Penelope ends and omniscience begins. If Penelope’s web tells the story as we know it from Homer, then the omniscient narrator adds colours and depth, drawing in other myths, commenting, and adding extra depth where possible. The result, with three voices chipping in to tell the tale, is effective and rather fun, especially when Odysseus dismisses the elaboration of legend and reminds us of the cruel, brutal realities of life in a warzone. It’s a tale that reminds us of the futility of war and modern parallels, say, with other Western nations invading Middle-Eastern territory, are hard to ignore. The urgent, uncompromisingly modern voice of Rush’s Odysseus makes this a universal, timeless story of greed, dishonestly and needless death. In that sense, it reminded me very much of Christopher Logue’s impressive War Music, though Logue’s language is… shall we say… more poetic.

I keep coming back to the language. This is not me being a maiden aunt, I assure you. I’m not adverse to the odd bit of cussing and swearing in novels, especially in a war story, but here it’s just unremitting. Eventually you find yourself being ground down – almost certainly deliberately – desensitised by the barrage of four-letter words. The portrayal of women is almost entirely focused on their sexual potential or performance. To what extent, though, can I criticise this? Rush is doing exactly what I ask of authors, inhabiting his characters’ minds and presenting their dialogue and thoughts in a viscerally real way. Can I then complain? I should add that the battle scenes are also shockingly explicit, like those in the real Iliad but with added force due to the contemporary language. You realise how cheap, how easily extinguished, life was at this time. One thing I would say is that, in losing some of the Iliad’s nobility, Rush loses some of its emotional impact. He shocks, but he doesn’t give us characters we can easily care about. Perhaps this, too, is deliberate. When his Achilles, naked but for his weapons (this is real life: magical god-crafted armour doesn’t happen here), faces Hector at the gates of Troy, I was ready to feel moved – but that never quite happened. In that way, too, this is close to reality. War is not grand or moving or noble. It’s a pointless waste of life.

I am entirely divided on what to feel about the book. Take out half of the swearwords, and half of the sex scenes, and it would be much more to my taste. It is a very smart rationalisation of the two greatest epics of Western literature, and it enables you to feel, hear and understand the Trojan War in a way that I’ve rarely seen outside of Homer. Rush can write brilliantly, and his change of ‘voice’ between Odysseus and Penelope is excellently done. But I just can’t get away from the unpleasantness of it…

It is a book worth reading, in short, but definitely not one for those who don’t like battles or who like their characters to avoid swearing. Even those who don’t (like me) don’t mind, this can be a test of resilience. I’ve seen it described as a ‘Marmite book’ and that is absolutely right. In fact, within myself I both love and thoroughly dislike it, hence the firmly middling rating. Just don’t go into it expecting to enjoy it. There’s no glory here: it is, despite its ancient setting, a thoroughly modern dissection of the futility of war.

Buy the book

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