Ithaca by Patrick Dillon retells Homer’s Odyssey primarily through the eyes of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus.
The three-part novel opens with sixteen-year-old Telemachus struggling to assert himself in the face of suitors who bully, taunt, and ridicule him. He watches helplessly in despair as the suitors turn his home into a ramshackle free-for-all while gobbling up his inheritance. He decides to set out in search for news of his father. Part 1 concludes with Telemachus heading first to Pylos and then to Sparta with Nestor’s daughter, Polycaste.
Part 2 begins with Odysseus’ encounter with Nausicaa at Phaeacia, includes a narrative of his adventures after his departure from Troy, and ends with Odysseus’ arrival at Ithaca.
Part 3 re-focuses on Telemachus; his meeting with Odysseus; the killing of the suitors and their accomplices; the reunification of Penelope and Odysseus; and Telemachus’ rejection of the warrior lifestyle. It concludes with him leaving Ithaca intent on leading a quiet life with Polycaste on a remote island.
On the positive side, the novel is a quick and easy read, moving at a brisk pace with detailed descriptions. Some of the most moving lines describe the devastating physical and psychological impact of the war on its survivors—men with missing limbs and shattered psyches; women and children still grieving over the loss of loved ones. War is a decidedly unheroic enterprise, stripped of glory, turning men into monsters, and shattering lives in its wake.
Some character portrayals are interesting. Telemachus is plagued with self-doubt and frustration. Menelaus seethes with resentment at Helen. Helen is duplicitous and manipulative. Penelope is non-communicative and ineffectual. Odysseus is a broken old man, eaten up with guilt at his treatment of wife and child.
But . . .
Although an author can take some liberties in retelling a myth by fleshing out details and embellishing scenes, the novel has to at least be consistent with itself. Since this is a novel about Telemachus, the whole of part 2 was incongruous and a distraction. Odysseus recounting his adventures to the Phaeacians had nothing to do with Telemachus. He wasn’t even present at the time in either the epic or the novel. So why include it?
Furthermore, Dillon so seriously deviated from Homer’s epic that it brings to question the extent of his research and knowledge of the times. In the Homeric epic, when Nestor suggests to Telemachus he should seek news of his father from Menelaus in Sparta, he sends his son, Peisistratus, to accompany him. He does not send his daughter, which is what happens in this novel. No father at that time would send his unmarried daughter on a journey unless she were accompanied by an entourage of men for protection. He certainly wouldn’t send her off in the sole company of young man, especially since she is a princess whose virginity is perceived as a prized commodity.
Another serious deviation concerns Odysseus’ journey to the underworld. In Homer, he seeks direction from the blind prophet Tiresias. In the novel, he speaks with Laocoon, a Trojan priest. It makes no sense for Odysseus, a Greek, to seek advice from a Trojan priest, especially since this is the same priest who cautions the Trojans against bringing the infamous horse into their city. Why should Odysseus seek him let alone trust him?
Although showing strength in some areas, the novel as a whole suffers from glaring inaccuracies and fails to deliver on its potential.