When I was first sent Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ as a very early unsolicited advance proof copy last summer I swiftly passed it onto my mother. You see she is a classicist and indeed teaches classics, as well as English literature, so I knew she would love it. I also assumed being about the Greek gods, myths and legends it would therefore not be mine. I am sure my mother’s passion for the subject is contagious for her students but as her own child it occasionally got a bit much. I think it was the 12 endless hours in Pompeii during my bolshie early teens, when I was so bored I had the biggest sulk ever (even a rather rude painting my mother dragged us to find didn’t have the desired effect of cheering me up) that could have put me off. Or maybe it was getting 100% in my Classics exam at the school my mother taught at and having the mickey taken out of me that was the final straw? Either way I completely shut the subject out of my life. Hence why I thought ‘The Song of Achilles’ would be highly unlikely to win me over. Yet I heard Michael Kindness rave about it on Books on the Nightstand, it then got longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012, and so I read it. I didn’t expect it to be a book that would reinvigorate my love for classics again or have me sobbing like a baby…
No doubt you will know the name Achilles whether you have read ‘The Iliad’ by Homer or not (and I haven’t) and indeed will probably have heard the tale of the Trojan War. That said, whether you have or not doesn’t actually matter because with ‘The Song of Achilles’ Madeline Miller retells you the tale but in doing so gives it a new perspective from one of the most unsung heroes of the tale itself, Patroclus.
Born a rather frail specimen, in fact somewhat an embarrassment to his father Menoetius (one of the Argonauts no less), he is involved in a terrible incident that sees him banished to Phthia, the land of King Peleus, he soon becomes a very unlikely friend to Peleus’ son Achilles, who he couldn’t be less like. It is from here, and through Patroclus, that Miller brings us the tale of the Trojan War and all its adventure, it’s also here that she gives us a love story too. It is both the adventure and this love story that makes us read on.
Though it is never officially stated in The Iliad, it is believed, and inferred, by many that Patroclus was not just simply Achilles’ closest confident and right hand man but that they also became lovers. It is this dynamic of their youthful friendship that gives the book its sense of adventure and the love story what gives the novel its emotional punch. I don’t normally love a love story, but I really loved this one. I can’t quite put my finger on how, which is probably why it works so well, Miller creates such a believable and touching relationship between these two men starting from pre-pubescent friendship that becomes post teenage love because she does it so deftly but you’ll be rooting for them, even though we soon learn the gods have stated a prophecy which isn’t going to reach a happy conclusion for anyone concerned. Have a tissue ready, seriously.
‘After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still. At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half-seconds, that the line of our gaze connected , were the only moment in my day when I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop in my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.’
Now here I must mention the Gods and the mythic creatures that do appear in the book. Some people choose not to mention them in modern twists on classics but I was relieved to see Miller was keeping them in (I mean why wouldn’t you as they make up so much of these old legends). That said, I knew that if she didn’t make them ring true, or make me conjure them in such a way as I believed in the unbelievable (a small ask) then she would have lost me. I needn’t have feared, as soon as Achilles mother Thetis appeared on the page I was sold hook, line and sinker.
‘The waves were warm, and thick with sand. I shifted, watched the small white crabs run through the surf. I was listening, thinking I might hear the splash of her feet as she approached. A breeze blew down the beach and, grateful, I closed my eyes. When I opened them again she was standing before me.
She was taller than I was, taller than any women I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as if it drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe. I did not dare.
‘You are Patroclus.’ I flinched at the sound of her voice, hoarse and rasping. I had expected chimes, not the grinding of rocks in the surf.’
It simply gets better and better from here on in. What was truly wonderful, and this is just a personal thing I guess, was how it made me want to go back to all the Greek and Roman myths and legends that my mother used to tell me and re-read them. It sort of brought out a passion for these tales that I had long forgotten. I actually cheered when Chiron the Centaur appeared on the stage, seriously I was so excited, ‘a centaur!’, and found myself smiling as I remembered the names and the tales of other characters mentioned in the novel.
‘At night we lay on the soft grass in front of the cave, and Chiron showed us the constellations, telling their stories – Andromeda, cowering before the sea monster’s jaws, and Perseus poised to rescue her; the immortal horse Pegasus, aloft on his wings, born from the severed head of Medusa. He told us too of Heracles, his labours, and the madness that took him. In its grip he had not recognised his wife and children, and had killed them for enemies.’
I wouldn’t normally say that I was a reader who subscribes to adventure stories or love stories and yet Madeline Miller’s debut novel ‘The Song of Achilles’ is easily my favourite read of the year so far. The reason for this is simple, she’s a bloody good storyteller, a great writer and I think the enthusiasm she has for classics becomes contagious somewhere in the way she writes. It’s now made me want to read ‘The Iliad’ (watch out for a read-a-long with Michael Kindness and I in due course) which I would never have thought of reading before. I also want to dust off my copy of ‘The Greek Myths’, dig out Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’ and get my hands on David Malouf’s ‘The Ransom’ too. Madeline Miller has made me want to run out and read more books with this book, what more can you ask from an author than that?
Have you read this and if so what did you make of it? What novels based on Greek Legends, or reworking them, have you read and would recommend? Oh and, Madeline Miller will be on the blog tomorrow, as will the chance to win some copies of this marvellous book. In the meantime thoughts and recommendations most welcome.