To say this is not the Iliad we all vaguely know and love is a slight understatement. The Trojans are indeed waging war in the background, and we are faintly aware that Penelope must be by now weaving furiously at her loom, while Odysseus reminds us at every turn that the gods have spoken and made their prophecies, so time is going to be of the essence as far as Achilles is concerned.
But not once is there a mention of that famous heel, and this tale is not going to spend much time or energy on the beauteous Helen and her face launching all those ships – for the full thrust, if you’ll pardon the expression, of “The Song of Achilles” lies in the telling of the love story between our main man Achilles and his childhood friend Patroclus.
It’s a bit of a turn up for the books really. Much painstaking research has been done by Madeline Miller, who has had a passion for all things classical her entire life, but whether this story is substantiated fact or revisited fiction is something that can be argued either way. In the Q&A on her website, the author refers to her reading of Homer to validate her theory, and am sure she is on fairly safe ground that not that many of us are going to down tools and pick up the “Odyssey” to prove her wrong. And to be honest, I don’t think it matters all that much.
That the book swept up the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012 is perhaps a bit startling, given the short list the book was up against, but I did think that it was a really rollicking read and got totally swept along by the story. Agree with Kira Cochrane’s review that the narrative is “occasionally pulpy”, and have been fascinated to peruse the pros and cons of what came across sometimes as a rather Mills and Boon approach to the romantic elements. It would appear that you either love it – or you don’t at all.
The author and critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote very pithily in the New York Times that the book “has the head of a young adult novel, the body of the Iliad, and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland”, (!!!) and while AN Wilson raves that: “I read this book awestruck with admiration for the quality of its writing, its narrative pace and its imaginative depth”, another Reading Group reviewer from The Guardian, Dylanwolf, wanted to know what judge Joanna Trollope “had been smoking”: “Miller seems to have plumped for a ‘condescending Ladybird’ slash ‘inept soap opera’ combo which makes for dull reading, laughably prosaic dialogue, a total lack of psychological depth in the characters, embarrassingly juvenile soft-porn love scenes and the resulting conviction that neither Achilles nor Patroclus had even the tiniest aptitude for the field of battle.” Steady on, hold your horses, mate…
I think it’s easy to lash out at what can be construed as the book’s Young Adult style here and there, but I do think it winningly recounts a story with great passion and eloquence. Loved the character of Chiron the Centaur and his role in those formative years.
Found the peripheral yet key women’s roles are very interesting to follow throughout the novel; the depiction of sea goddess Thetis is fascinating as scary mother of an atypical teenager (even though we don’t get to read about her dipping Achilles in the River Styx and fatally holding him by that blessed heel), and I also love what Ms Miller wrote about the real hero of her tale:
“In writing this novel, I thought a lot about personal responsibility. Patroclus is not an epic person, the way Achilles is. He’s an “ordinary” man. But he has more power than he thinks, and the moments where he reaches out to others and offers what he sees as his very modest assistance have huge positive ramifications. Most of us aren’t Achilles—but we can still be Patroclus. What does it mean to try to be an ethical person in a violent world?”
The gods may throw a dice, but I give “The Song of Achilles” my vote, for daring to push the boat out and take a slightly alternative yet ultimately very valid trip around the Greek isles.
Rating : 9/10
Winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction 2012