January 19, 2006


Ithaka. By Adèle Geras. Harcourt. $17.

     Five years ago, Adèle Geras produced a reworking of Homer’s Iliad under the title Troy.  It was an interesting novelized retelling of the story from the point of view of Troy’s women, in thoroughly modern language.  It was not a fully successful book, somehow reducing the tragedy of the Iliad to pathos.  But it set the stage for Geras to produce Ithaka, which is a fully successful book – though it is not Homer’s Odyssey.

     Here too Geras offers a female point of view, but here, unlike in Troy, she does not attempt to tell the famed story itself, except incidentally.  Homer helps her: The Odyssey spends far more time on Odysseus’ wanderings and adventures than on what is happening back home to Penelope and the hero’s long-abandoned household.  Geras switches the focus to that home, invents characters at will to fill out Homer’s rather thin handling of the subject, and as a result creates a satisfying human-interest story that is complete with a number of godly intercessions, as makes sense in any Homeric tale.

     Readers familiar with The Odyssey should not expect faithfulness to it.  An important element of Ithaka, for instance, is that the distressed and long-suffering Penelope has taken a lover, Leodes, and that she fears for Leodes’ life should her son, Telemachus, find out.  This is entirely different from what happens in Homer’s epic, where the whole point is Penelope’s faithfulness through 20 years of Odysseus’ wanderings.  (Geras reduces the length of time, too, thereby keeping the characters younger.)

     Geras forms her novel largely around the perceptions and adventures of Klymene, whom the author invents as a handmaiden of Penelope – a girl so close to her mistress that she is almost a daughter.  Klymene also has feelings for Telemachus, giving readers a greater chance than Homer provided to see how Penelope’s son reacts to the constant presence of the suitors.  And Geras gives the suitors themselves more character – of the negative sort – through scenes such as one in which they throw stones at the aged dog Argos and Klymene (and later Leodes) come to the animal’s rescue.

     Ithaka succeeds so well because – unlike Troy – it never seems a pale copy of its source.  It seems more of a side tale, the way the play Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was a side tale for Hamlet.  Although Geras’ novel is for ages 14 and up, it omits some elements of female focus that The Odyssey itself suggests, notably the patently unfair fate of the women servants whom Odysseus kills because they have been servicing the suitors sexually, thus keeping their urges toward Penelope under control.  Yet when Geras does use elements of Homer’s epic, she uses them thoughtfully, as in the frequent but usually momentary appearances of the gods, sometimes only seen and other times taking a brief but crucial role in the story.  The Homeric notion of humans as the gods’ playthings certainly comes through – but Geras also makes it clear that humans are the playthings of their own ambitions and wishes to at least the same extent.  Ithaka is not only a fine book in its own right but also, potentially, a gateway through which young readers will decide to discover what makes The Odyssey a tale that has inspired so many writers, Geras being merely the latest among them.

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