I was even more excited when I read the introduction and realised it was part of a series by the publisher, canongate, to enlist well respected authors to retell classic myths. Unknowingly, I've already read two in the series, Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopied and I look forward to reading the others.
Anyway, back to Weight;
The Plot: Condemned to carry the weight of the weight of the cosmos for eternity, freedom appears unattainable for Atlas, until he receives an unexpected visit from Hercules, the only other person strong enough to shoulder the burden, who offers him a deal.
Although the story has been around for thousands of years, to avoid spoiling this retelling my thoughts are under the jump.
First up, what I enjoyed tremendously about Weight was the explanation of how Atlas could be outside the universe but still part of it. When I've read stories about Atlas' punishment before, I had troubling imagining it, but Jeanette Winterson some how manages to make it clear. The opening chapters are the strongest, the pantheon of Greek gods and the creation story can be muddling, but under Winterson's capable pen, they are introduced succinctly.
The real pleasure comes from how flawed the gods are, it's the part that makes them appealing and still relevant, they are petty, jealous and vindictive and Winterson clearly relishes the opportunity to play with these characters. Atlas, is a triumph, a complex Titan, who is both proud of his endurance but also longs to set the burden down. Hercules is not remotely heroic, and while I appreciated his thuggish characterisation, his dialogue jarred with me. He speaks like a petulant teenager and the use of modern colloquialisms seemed ill-fitting with the tone of the rest of the book.
Throughout Weight there is a continuous refrain of 'I want to tell the story again', as Winterson is not only trying to tell the story of Atlas and Hercules, but to also question how and why stories are told, and the enduring relevance of ancient myths. I thought this made a worthy addition to the traditional tale, and was neither dry or overly academic, it was well incorporated.
I think this this retelling is definitely worth a read, and maybe even a re-read. Highly recommended to people both familiar and unfamiliar with Greek myths.