T. H. Breen
Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson by Gordon S. Wood
She is banished to her island precisely because the gods disapprove of and fear witchcraft. Circe is that rarity, a restless, discontented immortal who wants time to pass. And she is a goddess on a quest for significant love.
Mhundred generations, I had walked the world drowsy and dull, idle and at my ease. I left no prints, I did no deeds. Even those who had loved me a little did not care to stay. iller has learned as many lessons from Disney as she has from Homer, and her story pleases in some of the same ways. The cast of divinities and the impressive parade of Circe’s lovers—Hermes, Daedalus, Odysseus, with whom she will have a child—pass through the book on their adventures like animations. We almost imagine which recognizable voice of which celebrity actor might deliver their speeches. They also tend to speak in the Disney fairy-tale dialect. Here is Circe conversing with the fisherman Glaucos:
“Rise,” I told him. “Please. I have not blessed your nets, I have no powers to do so. I am born from Naiads, who govern fresh water only, and even their small gifts I lack.”
“Yet,” he said, “may I return? Will you be here? For I have never known such a wondrous thing in all my life as you.”
The gods don’t fare as well as humans in Miller’s prose; the former are imagined with less energy and engagement. Brilliant metaphor would be the natural idiom for Circe, whose special power is transformation. Yet even when Athena is on stage, Miller misses her opportunity. Athena alights on Circe’s island “like an eagle in her dive . . . . She smiled like a temple snake over its bowl of cream,” “looked like an eagle who had been diving upon a rabbit.” Thanks in part to such clichés, Athena is a bore, smug, brutal, imperious.
Miller’s work is most keenly alive in her account of Circe’s parenthood. Here the mutual incomprehension embedded within the relationship of adult and child—experience and naiveté, emotional ambivalence and passion, the sheer amount of divination it takes to meet a child’s daily needs and moods, the shocking power of a fragile baby over a powerful adult—translates beautifully into the descriptions of goddess and child: “A thousand years I had lived, but they did not feel so long as Telegonus’ childhood.” There is a suggestion here of something thrillingly new: the relationship explored between mother and child in these pages is epic, and worthy of epic. It is neither merely mundane nor hopelessly tragic, but dynamic, passionate, tender, angry, dangerous, and loving, with an intense, risky, physical drama played out between a vulnerable child and a mother obligated to be protective even when driven mad in a contest of wills.
It is in these pages that Miller transcends her fairy-tale models, though she returns to them at the book’s conclusion, somewhat predictably, but still poignantly. Miller understands that the best fairy tales are not only wish fulfillments but also stories of the denial of wishes. She manages to combine both elements in her finale, creating an ending that is simultaneously happy and unhappy.
Circe is a novel that will surely be read differently by readers of different ages: an adolescent might very well be powerfully affected by this drama of gods and mortals. For others, like me, the book reads as if it were one of the goddess’s conjuring tricks: a hypnotic experience that seems less like a novel when it is finished than an illusion.