The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller (book review)

This is what I wrote on my book Instagram in early February 2017, a few minutes after finishing Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles – 

“Usually, before I start reading a book, I will do a bit of research about it online. For this one however I didn’t. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because Therese (@dreamsinslowmo) had recommended it so wholeheartedly. Maybe it’s because I thought I already knew what it was about. About Achilles and the Trojan war. And it was about that. But it was also so much more. I’ve just turned the last page and I’m full of images and feelings that seem here to stay. I’m not an expert in Greek mythology though I do have more than a little knowledge about it, so I didn’t read this for historical or mythical authenticity, and cannot comment on the same. I can however talk about the authenticity of voice, of emotion and thought and characters that felt very real. Though narrated in first-person and then as an omniscient narrator by Patroclus, Achilles lives and breathes just as vividly. I’d never had much interest in him beyond the usual, but this book means that Madeline Miller’s version of the boy who was mortal and god and the recipient of the prophecies of the Fates will always be close to me. Equally, though it is the pulsing, relentless inevitability of his impending death that drives the story on and makes you want to stop reading yet read on, it was Patroclus’s fall that made me cry more. Having forgotten many of the details of the Trojan War, it didn’t strike me until I wondered how I didn’t realise it all along, and the force of the emotion threw me off balance, a balance not restored until the final lines of the story that I’ve quoted above. Beautiful, poetic language, vivid detail, breathtaking depth of emotion and a loving tribute to these two heroes, this adaptation gets ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ from me.”

I thought it would be interesting to revisit these words and my thoughts and see whether any new insights have been added now that it’s been a few months since. Read on to see what I discovered

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Let’s start with a fun fact. I recently discovered that it took Madeline Miller 10 years to write this novel (a time included discarding a then-complete manuscript!). Kind of fitting that it matches the duration of the Trojan War, where a large part of this narrative is set. When you come to think of it, Patroclus’ death and Achilles’ subsequent revenge is one of the single most important points around which the fate of the war turns.

Achilles is the hero, no doubt, and you wouldn’t be wrong when you imagine that a book titled The Song of Achilles would be about him. But you’d also be wrong. It’s about Achilles, and as I said above, that version of him will always remain with me, more endearing than other versions I’ve read, but we don’t get to know him and relate to him as we do Patroclus. Let’s face it, the golden boy can be a bit of a jerk at times, more than a bit, actually, especially later on. It’s Patroclus’ eyes we see the world and Achilles through. It’s Patroclus we see grow from an innocent lad to a complex character that comes into his own a few years into the war, the character whose death affects us (well, me, anyway) more, the voice of reason who accepts his mistakes and blind spots and works to correct them. Miller, in her Guardian interview, revealed how she was committed in giving Patroclus, a relatively minor character in The Iliad, a voice, because she was intrigued by its use of the word “gentle” to describe him, a personality trait scorned by the ancient Greeks and Romans when it came to their masculine ideals and hero qualities. There are times he appears a bit too effeminate and I wonder how much of this was intentional in furthering a weak/strong lead pair, but the manner in which he handles matters after Achilles withdraws from the war makes up for that and more. This book is equally a tribute to the bravery and wisdom of the gentle disowned prince, and it’s all the greater for it. I only wish it hadn’t been towards the end of the book and towards the end of his life, but let’s blame the Fates for that, shall we?

“It was almost like fear, in the way it filled me, rising in my chest. It was almost like tears, in how swiftly it came. But it was neither of those, buoyant where they were heavy, bright were they dull.”

Let’s talk a bit about the language. One of the immediate plus points for me was how easily much of it flowed (the highlights on my Kindle don’t lie) and suited the narrative voice. It’s because of this inherent rhythm to her writing that the clumsy bits and the purple prose (including some metaphors that didn’t work, and a few rather cringey sex scenes) glared stronger. Considering that I still enjoyed the narrative, this might seem like a quibble, but there you have it. This book has unashamedly pulpy undertones and I have no issues with that (well-written pulp is always welcome), but I felt that these parts could have been altered/omitted without taking away from the story.

The feeling of enjoyment held for the most part, especially when the author used simple description to anchor the prose while being visceral at the same time – Achilles looking “wild, fevered, hard as granite” when he goes to see his mother, the goddess Thetis or Apollo breathing on the arrow from Paris’ bow that will end Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks – “a puff of air – as if to send dandelions flying, to push toy boats over water”. The words, whenever they came, felt authentic when it came to describing the passion and longing and deep emotions of love and fate and death and glory. The relationship that builds up between the two is sweet and uncomplicated despite its imperfections; in fact the moments when Achilles is most “himself” without the pressure of expectations is when it’s just the two of them, when he can be unguarded and under-confident and endearingly unsure. This is why the time they spend with Chiron on Mount Pelion rushes to the very top of memories to cherish, before the inescapable winds of fate carry them closer to their deaths.

Overall, I don’t think my opinion’s changed all that much. I’ve been asked how this compares to The Illiad and my answer’s simple – it uses characters from the epic, but isn’t a retelling of the epic or the Trojan war, and shouldn’t be unfairly expected to be one. It’s the story of Achilles and Patroclus – a beautiful tribute as envisioned by a teacher-writer with a Masters in Latin and Ancient Greek, and a strong background of the classics (in 2012 it won the last-ever Orange prize). It’s a book that will lead you straight to the original texts and myths; far from a bad thing in times such as these. For me, it’s held up equally well after a second read, and remains one of my best reads of 2017.

“We cannot say who will survive the holocaust of memory.”

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Love this cover art by Daniela Vicoso (follow her on http://danibonbon.tumblr.com)
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