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Review: The Song of Achilles

April 9, 2012

In the interest of full disclosure, this review is of a book that comes from my publishing house (albeit from the adult division). Hang it all, the book is so beautiful that I can’t help reviewing it anyway. Hope you enjoy!

Title: The Song of Achilles

Author: Madeline Miller

Read this: because it’s stunningly gorgeous. (Or because you enjoyed Troy, but thought there wasn’t nearly enough guy-in-skirt-on-guy-in-skirt action between Patroclus and Achilles. Hint: yours truly did!)

The short version: A moving, elegiac reimagining of an ancient epic. If you hated the ancient Greek poets in school, The Song of Achilles will change your mind.

 

If you’ve ever read the Iliad or seen the above-mentioned movie Troy, then you know, in varying degrees, the story of Achilles. This book revives that story in every way, restoring the nuance and the poetry that too often get lost in those dry academic translations.

Miller’s take on the Trojan War is narrated by Patroclus, friend, partner, and lover to the titular hero. Quiet and observant, Patroclus is content to stand aside in favor of Achilles’ greatness. He’s a healer to Achilles’ warrior, an exiled prince and unappreciated son to Achilles’ demi-god and figure of prophecy. And it’s Patroclus’ quieter strength that drives the novel’s narrative, which spends only about a third of its time on the Trojan War itself.

The story in the first person and the present tense, a choice which seems odd in light of all the deaths, Patroclus’ included, that the Trojan War has to bring. It’s a choice that completely makes the novel, though, and one that’s explained brilliantly–and poignantly–by the end. Patroclus is a perceptive narrator. In a lot of ways, he’s also a smaller narrator than the original, Virgil. From his place at Achilles’ side, Patroclus paints both gods and men in with exceptionally fine brushstrokes. The book reads like a series of vignettes, expertly connected across a sun-drenched span of time.

All that makes the book a compulsive page-turner. What makes it memorable is the characterization, which blends classical mythology with refreshingly complex, human motives. From Patroclus to Odysseus to Achilles’ mother, the sea nymph Thetis, each character is richly drawn and easy to understand. The perennially sassy and sly Odysseus provides some hands-down hilarious moments, while also being politically savvy enough to make sense as an influential member of Agamemnon’s war council. And Thetis, who can’t understand why a mere mortal like Patroclus has so thoroughly ensnared her son, strikes an intriguing balance between the dangerous spitefulness of a classical goddess and the oh-so-human desire to do what’s best for her child.

It certainly helps, I might add, that the romance between Achilles and Patroclus is gorgeous, all soul-consuming and slow and full of discovery. Absolutely.

Patroclus isn’t a fighter or a prince–in fact he comes across as a little cowardly, at least in regards to combat. But he’s brave and honorable in other ways. It’s interesting to see him next to Achilles, of all people, who represents an extreme of greatness. Miller’s Patroclus hates violence, is completely dedicated to Achilles, will follow him to the ends of the earth–but still has the strength to stand up and fight for what matters. How do you establish an even remotely equal partnership between “the first of the Greeks” and any lover? In historical context, it’s an even more interesting question because the partners in question are both men.

The Song of Achilles is a truly great re-imagining of a classic story–thought-provoking, well-researched, stunningly beautiful, and tragic in a much more personal way than the original. Even if you don’t know anything about ancient Greece, I recommend you give it a try.

Just remember to stock up on tissues.

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