Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Sunday Book: The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller

The Orange Prize is a weird one. I think it is great to have a prize celebrating women's writing but I'm unconvinced by some of their choices. To be fair, I have only read three out of seventeen of their winners - Small Island, the Tiger's Wife and this year's winner, the Song of Achilles. I enjoyed all of these, I thought they were good books, but I didn't think they were great books. Two of my favourite prize winning books, Wolf Hall and Possession (the Man Booker), are by women and they are truly brilliant. Why didn't they win the Orange prize? Sure, Possession predates the prize but why no Mantel? Presumably there are some quite specific guidelines somewhere but it all seems a bit strange to me.

Anyway, this year's winner. I was intrigued by the Song of Achilles because on paper, in reviews, blurbs etc. it sounds a lot like Iliad fan fiction. Now, I'm a fan of fan fiction but it is rarely literary or award winning. I don't think there have been any successful fan fiction/published novel crossovers - feel free to challenge me on that one. Still, it worked as a hook; I saw classical history and mythology, romance and the suggestion of fan fiction and I bit. Those are a lot of my top things, in life and literature, so I bought the book and enjoyed it a lot. If you have similar interests you'll probably enjoy it too.

Seriously, such a trashy cover and quotes. *Sigh*

Post-reading I'm going to go out on a limb and say the book isn't fan fiction (apologies if this is a disappointment). It doesn't fit the profile in terms of content or style. It is censored/discreet and recognisably literary. It isn't sublime but it is serviceably well written and Homer's story is wonderful. Achilles and Patroclus' relationship has been debated forever and Madeline Miller is gunning for romance and I am right there with her. The book starts with Patroclus as a child being forced to bid for Helen's hand and pledge to protect her. It follows his exile to Achilles' father's island and their childhood and adolescence together. They grow up, falling in love and becoming inseperable before destiny strikes in the shape of the Trojan war. I would say 'Spoiler Alert' but you know what's going to happen. It is tragic and heart-breaking and I cried quite a lot.

I'm not a Classicist (Miller is - she has an MA from Brown and has spent the last nine years teaching) so I can't vouch for every single element of the novel being as per Homer but the fundamentals match and it felt genuine. I would guess that her interpretations are plausible - feel free to challenge me on that one too. [I'm throwing around a lot of sweeping statements that I can't back up today, my university tutors would be miffed.] One of the things I most enjoyed, aside from all the emotions and man lurve, was how smoothly she integrated the gods. They are everywhere, walking among men as lovers and parents, yet easy to anger and careless of modern morality. So interesting. The story is told from Patroclus' perspective, fleshing out a character who is often reduced to little more than a catalyst, but this is done at the cost of Achilles' characterisation. The best of the Greeks is a bit flat. Maybe that is right though, he is only half human?

All in all, I liked this book. It was romantic and cathartic - there were tummy flutters and tears which sometimes one (or, at least, this one) needs from a book. It was a good quality light read. It ticked a lot of my boxes subject wise. It isn't for everyone but you can probably tell from this if it is for you. If so, jump on it and we can chat Greek mythology and man love.

Chuck x


  1. awww, I need to read this. I've always loved Patroclus/Achilles lovin'. Did you read the Mary Renault books? I remember writing some fan fic based on that when I was about 15.. x

  2. Quite interesting. Have you read The Lost Odyssey? That one was a rather clever spin on Greek mythology and the stories we've all heard hundreds of times