Ingrid works on a gargantuan cruise ship where she spends her days reorganizing the gift shop shelves and waiting for long-term guests to drop dead in the aisles. On her days off, she disembarks from the ship, wasting the hours aimlessly following tourists around, drinking the local alcohol, and buying clothes she never intends to wear. It's not a bad life. At least it distracts her from thinking about the other life--the other person--she left behind five years ago.
Much to its credit, however, The Odyssey turns out to be something quite other than a seasick riff on Normal People. The characters, for one thing, are far from normal ... Williams has a deft touch in developing, by the accretion of small details, a sense of the strangeness of her characters and their situation — the feeling that all their gears are cranked just a few degrees short of sanity and that the world is spinning imperceptibly off its axis. It is also an interesting discovery that a novel that — with all its atmosphere of glib despondency and bodily dissociation — seems at first sight to be composed of the familiar materials of all interchangeable millennial fiction, in fact turns out to be about people who are barely in their right minds. Perhaps this is all part of a wicked literary trick Williams is trying to play on the kind of reader likely to be attracted to it.
This is not intended to be a realistic novel: the ship sails from Spain to Canada without marking the passage of time. Instead, Williams’s cruise ship functions rather like J. G. Ballard’s high-rise, as an impossible, symbolic environment designed to expose something essential about modern life ... It is difficult, however, to identify what Williams is after. A preponderance of wealthy passengers provides well-worn material, while the theme of the strung-out lives of the overworked crew is consistent with several novels of millennial striving. Overshadowed by their conceptual environment, the characters do not come across with much force. Keith makes increasingly gruesome demands of Ingrid, but what makes him charismatic enough to be running a successful cult is not apparent on the page. His utterances are emptily rhetorical, and his great interrogative method is to make Ingrid tell the same story three times, getting closer to the ugly truth with each rendition. This is wearing to read, not least because, for unknown reasons, all the dialogue is emphasized in italics. Ingrid similarly suffers from a lack of dimension and complication ... These are unhomeric problems indeed, and perhaps there is a point to them, but not one that rises to the challenge of the premise. As in several of these books, a deeper meaning suggests itself, only to be washed away.
Williams dissects Ingrid’s character layer by layer, building the story through a series of tantalizing, frequently bizarre reveals that show exactly how this troubled woman ended up on a cruise ship that, like her, is falling apart. Readers who enjoy Melissa Broder and Ottessa Moshfegh will appreciate this surreal trip through a troubled woman’s psyche.