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‘A playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War’ – Moira Lovell reviews Jane Fox’s The Unofficial Odyssey

Published in The Witness

Many writers have found inspiration for their own work in the great epics – The Iliad and The Odyssey – attributed to Homer. Not least among these, in recent years, have been Elizabeth Cook (Achilles, 2001), Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, 2005), Peter Ackroyd (The Fall of Troy, 2007), David Malouf (Ransom, 2009) and Madeline Miller, with her award-winning The Song of Achilles (2011). Now, South African writer, Jane Fox, presents The Unofficial Odyssey, a playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War and its aftermath, based on her reading of Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and on the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.

While the arc of the famous narrative is evident – from the abduction of Helen of Sparta to the trickery of the Wooden Horse and Odysseus’ subsequent perilous, decade-long voyage home to Ithaca – and while the major protagonists are featured, Fox’s focus is on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her women friends, left at home when the men sail for Troy.

Penelope’s closest friend and former lover, Sappho, is, like her namesake, something of a poet, and, in the absence of the men and of any news of the progress of the war, she suggests that the women – and the resident bard, Phemius – compose stories that reflect the possible development of events. Each of the women will be responsible for an instalment and will position herself in the narrative. Phemius will make a contribution and is responsible for committing the work to papyrus.

Each of the women bears the name of a female protagonist in the original saga, so that when she tells her imagined instalment, she is, in fact, reflecting, to some extent, the part she plays in the original.

The assembled Ithacan women include Iphigenia (named after the hapless daughter of Agamemnon); Cassandra (whose namesake is the prophetic Trojan princess to whom no one listens); Circe (named after the beguiling enchantress whom Odysseus encounters on the island of Aeaea); Calypso (the equally beguiling nymph with whom Odysseus spends seven years on the island of Ogygia); and Nausicaa (the Phaeacian princess who rescues Odysseus when he is shipwrecked on her father’s island).

In addition to the contributions of these women, Penelope herself, Sappho, Laertes (the elderly father of Odysseus) and Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) are given voice in their own chapters. Thus the imagined sequence of events unfolding beyond Ithaca is revealed, along with developments at home: Telemachus grows into a young man during his father’s protracted absence; there is the death of Odysseus’ mother; the invasion of Odysseus’ home by increasing numbers of loutish suitors (whom Fox dubs ‘refugees’); and Penelope’s famously duplicitous weaving of a shroud for Laertes. Even Odysseus’ dog, Argos, makes intermittent appearances and contributes to the poignancy of the conclusion.

Told in a jaunty, colloquial style and with considerable imaginative chutzpah, Fox’s novel is a light-hearted view of the origins of the famous texts. The Unofficial Odyssey is an elegant publication, coffee-table rather than bookshelf size, with striking illustrations by Ronel Wheeler.


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