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Publication Date
24 September 2015
Hardback (also available as an eBook)
Available for Sale
Birlinn Ltd

Penelope's Web

by Christopher Rush - Find out more about the author



eBook also available from the iBookstore

'Christopher Rush has written a profound meditation not just on our present condition but on how we all live inside 'the web', how we weave fact, the way we make and unmake fictions, and how we choose to live and die by them' – Brian Morton, Scottish Review of Books

'Hugely entertaining and instructively disturbing… it's also fiercely learned… The novel is beautifully written and superbly paced. Its 500 pages whizz past like one of Odysseus' deadly arrows' – Dr Jon Hesk, Hellenist Lecturer at St Andrews University

‘Read it if you yearn for something startlingly original and uncompromising.’ – Antonia Senior, Historical Book of the Month, The Times

'Few Scottish writers are as visceral or painterly in their prose' – Herald

Odysseus returns to Ithaca after nearly twenty years, half of it spent as a soldier and the other half as a soldier of fortune. During his absence his wife Penelope remains faithful, despite Odysseus being missing and presumed dead, but when her husband suddenly reappears he confronts those who have been trying to seduce his wife and kills them all.

This is a novel about war and peace, about how returning soldiers can find peace more horrible than war, and home more hellish than the battlefield.

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans and taught literature for thirty years in Edinburgh. His books include A Twelvemonth and a Day and the highly acclaimed To Travel Hopefully. A Twelvemonth and a Day served as inspiration for the film Venus Peter, released in 1989. The story was also reworked by Rush in a simplified version in 1992 as a children’s picture book, Venus Peter Saves the Whale, illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick, which won the Friends of the Earth 1993 Earthworm Award for the book published that year that would most help children to enjoy and care for the Earth.


1 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Dr John Amson
Sep 9, 2015

Every few years another book flows from the mind and pencil of Christopher Rush, the writing and telling of which surpassing the previous one in invention, wit and devastatingly robust, in-your-ear, honesty of word-smithing. ‘Penelope’s Web’, the latest one, reaches a new, Olympian level.

Rush takes the many thousand-year-old Homeric tale of the ten-year-long Trojan Wars and the next ten long years wanderings of one of the warriors in the Greek armies and re-tells it. He does this using three voices:
The first as lived, trialled, enjoyed, endured and experienced through the vital sensual excesses of that bold, cunning, wily, lying, thieving, devious, inspiring, lovable warrior, the Greek adventurer Odysseus.
The second as suffered by Odysseus’s once-youthful wife Penelope, bereft, forlorn, unsure, increasingly begrieved yet pursued by scores of point-scoring, gluttonous, sexually active, avaricious, noble, young chancers who remain convinced that her husband will never return, never come home, is dead. Whilst ever postponing her remarrying through the artifice of daily continuing to weave on her loom the burial shroud for her husband’s old father, and nightly unpicking the day’s work, shroud or web --- Penelope’s Web --- hers is a sober, sombre, guarded, gentler, saner alternative voice.
The third is that of the all-seeing, all-knowing voice of the Narrator, who, in league or not with the Gods, can make plainer to the reader the way these Gods direct, interfere, manipulate for good or for ill the fortunes and misfortunes of the earthly players be they in lascivious palaces, foul and befouled killing-grounds, lost at sea, or simply trying to come home after years of retributive, brutal warring, all to recover the beauteously-fabled Greek, Helen, cousin of Penelope, wife of the Greek King Menelaus from her seduced elopement with Paris, the princely, honour-less Trojan.

‘Penelope’s Web’ is not for the faint-hearted or the faint-vocubularied. Rush is facing-up, facing-out, to the desperate voicing of fucking abusive scorn and encouragement as Greek and Trojan try, and very often succeed, in killing each other by the thousands or capturing and raping the countless Trojan women. Over ten long years. There are no women warriors, only men; and men who come to battle return from battle different men. It has always been so. The Greek Army’s Sack and Rape of Troy can only be dimly understood in our times by recalling the Red Army’s Sack and Rape of Berlin not long ago.

Rush makes vivid the eternal warrior’s self-inflicted, self-enjoyed, self-feared torment and exhilaration, by shamelessly exploiting the anachronistic word-play of the conflicts of our own Century of War, from the trench warfare of that Western Front to the Iraqs and Afghanistans of recent times. And the sexual demands and incoherences of post-fear, post-battle revenges and assertions of the survivors. And the sense that surviving a brutal and brutalising war and its deadly battles has to be inexorably continued into surviving in the longed-for homecoming the denial of peace, the irreparable loss of peace.

Rush draws the tales of Penelope’s Web to a completely novel non-Homeric final chapter : his Exode. Homer’s own Odysseus, once gorily but happily reunited with Penelope after having slaughtered all of her gross Suitors and hanged a dozen of her wayward maids, soon leaves her yet again to wander far afield with his ship’s oar of polished pine until he comes to those places where an oar is no longer recognised for what it is, and the wine-dark sea of his travels and travails can be forgotten.

But not so for Rush : he has his Odysseus return a second time to Penelope and his home in the Isle of Ithaca. It has been said that Homer’s epic was a tale by old men for old men who remembered their youth. Rush’s finale --- his Exode --- is perhaps more terrible and more revealing : his Odysseus revisits all the places of his twenty-year odyssey. No Lethean River for him. The desolate, dead-filled plains and ruined city of Troy, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, cruel Charybdis and Scilla, his Cyclops in the stoppered cave, the empty beds and ashes of Circe and of his seven year copulation with Calypso, and the playful, never-forgotten Nausicaa on Scheria’s now empty beach . . .

Helen is dead, Penelope and her silver loom is dead. Odysseus sits alone on his hillside in Ithaca. Then he too is dead and his eyeless skull is set in a window, deaf to the seas. Thus does Rush close his tale, thus does he let us understand Odysseus and Penelope and her Web, thus does he make us weep.

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