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Ithaca: A Novel of Homer's Odyssey

by Patrick Dillon

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472544,345 (3.63)1
In the tumultuous aftermath of the Trojan War, a young man battles to save his home and his inheritance. Setting out to find his father, he ends up discovering himself.  Telemachus's father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born...and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father's house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family's wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge? Telemachus's journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer's famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus' resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus's extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus's own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home...and his father.… (more)
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Imagine a boy reaching the age of sixteen, never having met his father but having heard the most incredible stories of his heroism in battle, strength, daring, leadership, and cleverness. The boy is certain he shares none of these qualities, except, perhaps, the last.

But cleverness alone won’t protect his mother, who’s besieged by oafish, ambitious suitors she can’t get rid of, and who eat up whatever wealth the father left behind when he went to war–the boy’s inheritance. The only hope the son can cling to, and it’s not much, is that his father will, no, must return and put things right. But that hope competes against anger at the father’s irresponsibility and selfishness for staying away so long. And when an old friend passes through, he lets drop a remark like a lightning bolt: Your father’s a liar.

This is the premise to Dillon’s inventive, gripping take on Odysseus’ return to Ithaca following the Trojan War, except that the key figure here is Telemachus, the son. At once a coming-of-age story and a narrative about martial charisma, Ithaca asks, What is the measure of a man?
Fighting is the way of Telemachus’s world, but he’s never learned how; Odysseus wasn’t there to teach him. To be sure, the warriors who plague his mother and drive her deeper and deeper within herself give their calling a poor reputation. They’re vain, pompous, rude, and coarse, abusive to their subordinates (or those whom they’d like to make subordinate), and, if they perceive a slight, will kill by way of answer. Naturally, young Telemachus hates and mistrusts them, and would never want to be like them:

But he also fears them and hates his powerlessness, and he worries what will happen to his mother and himself should these quarrelsome guests ever put aside their rivalries to act in concert. Reluctantly, he leaves Ithaca to search for Odysseus, and his first stop is Pylos, where old Nestor rules, his father’s good friend and comrade-in-arms.

Nestor has no news, but he wants to help. He sends his daughter, Polycaste, a girl of Telemachus’s age, to guide the boy to Sparta and its king, Menelaus, the victor of the Trojan War. His ships range all over Greek and foreign waters, so if anyone knows what happened to Odysseus, Menelaus will.

The journey entails much more than a visit to a powerful lord, however, and Dillon turns his skill and insight toward a main theme of the novel: how the ability to fight defines masculinity and sexual power. In a switch, Polycaste is the warrior, whereas Telemachus hardly knows how to hold a sword. (Wouldn’t it have to be that way, or Nestor would never have put them together?) The author portrays Menelaus as a braggart and a bore, but he’s also a miserable soul who possesses everything in the world except happiness. It’s a terrific characterization.

The narrative shifts into Odysseus’s frame, as he lodges with a Phoenician trader and his wife, recovering until he’s fit to make the final voyage to Ithaca. Again, Dillon explores the sexual power theme, as he shows the trader’s daughter, Nausicaa, drooling over the shipwrecked hero. But the others react very differently, and though they feel the draw of Odysseus’s words when he tells of his travels and wars, they privately reserve judgment.

Is it possible that he’s lying about details or even entire exploits, an uncertainty that goes back to the question that plagues Telemachus? And even if what Odysseus says is true, do his adventures always suggest cleverness and a deft hand, or do greed, bungling, and poor seamanship play a part?

Ithaca is a fascinating tale, even–especially–if you’ve read the Odyssey or know the myth. ( )
  Novelhistorian | Jan 31, 2023 |
I was wary of this retelling of the epic which I have read, loved, and studied; but Dillon's approach of telling the story of Odysseus' return through Telemachus' POV was fresh and gave the scenes color. There are two middle sections told from Odysseus' and Eumaeus' individual points of view which were equally well painted ( )
  Tanya-dogearedcopy | Aug 21, 2016 |
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In the tumultuous aftermath of the Trojan War, a young man battles to save his home and his inheritance. Setting out to find his father, he ends up discovering himself.  Telemachus's father, Odysseus, went off to war before he was born...and never came back. Aged sixteen, Telemachus finds himself abandoned, his father's house overrun with men pursuing his beautiful mother, Penelope, and devouring the family's wealth. He determines to leave Ithaca, his island home, and find the truth. What really happened to his father? Was Odysseus killed on his journey home from the war? Or might he, one day, return to take his revenge? Telemachus's journey takes him across the landscape of bronze-age Greece in the aftermath of the great Trojan war. Veterans hide out in the hills. Chieftains, scarred by war, hoard their treasure in luxurious palaces. Ithaca re-tells Homer's famous poem, The Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus' resourceful and troubled son, describing Odysseus's extraordinary voyage from Troy to the gates of hell, and Telemachus's own journey from boyhood to the desperate struggle that wins back his home...and his father.

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