The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller (Review)

I picked up this book partly on the recommendation of a friend and partly because I was oddly charmed by all the negative reviews. While overall, reviews of this book are fantastic, there is a constant thread of negative reviews from people who are both astounded and enraged at the very idea that Achilles might have been anything other than a 100% heterosexual all-American hero.

I struggle to picture these reviewers; who are these people with a deep knowledge of Greek mythology, storied pedigrees in literary analysis/classics/history, and no awareness whatsoever of not just any subtext but also the past few millennia of discourse? They are so very, very angry and I would love to meet one.

The song of Achilles is the entire tragic story of arguably the greatest hero ever, told from the viewpoint of Patroclus, his closest companion. The novel takes the (not at all unprecedented but apparently totally surprising to some) position that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, and so this is a love story: the rise and eventual downfall of a literally god-like figure seen through the eyes of the person who most adores him and most fears for him.

Patroclus is not a warrior, and so the narrative doesn’t especially focus on combat; years are spent encamped outside Troy, and Achilles spends much of that time in battle. He is a peerless warrior, and no one can match him – this is all the detail the narrative needs, and all the detail the narrative gives. If you were looking for a blow-by-blow account of the Trojan war, then this is not the book for you (you probably want The Iliad).

Instead, the The Song of Achilles focuses on the relationship between the two main characters, spending most of its time on Achilles’ youth, growing up destined for greatness but not ready for it yet. Patroclus’ half-envious adoration is very well-drawn here, as is the slow growth of fearful intimacy between the two. It’s a very convincing romance that grows naturally out of who the characters are, as inescapable as the rest of their fates.

In fact, that can be said of the whole book. As with all the best classic tragedies, there is a sense of inevitability to it; you can see the ending coming from a long way off, and yet at no point does anyone (save Odysseus) take steps to avoid this and it is totally right that they don’t; the ends are a natural consequence of the characters’ choices which are an unavoidable result of who they actually are. This is a tricky thing to pull off as a writer, but absolutely required to be in any way Homeric; Miller plays it to perfection, setting the seeds of each character’s downfall from their first moments.

The prose is The Song of Achilles‘ greatest strength; it reads like an epic, with simple rolling structures that let the key twists of phrasing hammer home. The prose is relatively unornamented, knifing in when it matters but otherwise not getting in the way of the narrative; the golden beauty of Achilles in motion and the quiet horror of the sea nymph, Thetis, are brought immediately to life through Patroclus’ responses. If you are a regular reader of this site, you might be aware that I have a fondness for trashy fiction; a consequence of this is that sometimes I forget how good prose can be until I return to one of the justified classics. The Song of Achilles is a book that reminded me.

This is not a book that reimagines the life of Achilles, but one that builds on prior sources; Miller clearly has a lot of knowledge and a lot of care for Homer’s work, as well as the traditions and stories that have grown up around it. For the most part, you can track through ancient sources scene-for-scene, just told in a greater level of detail with more focus on the human aspects. Each little story – Achilles disguised as a woman, Agamemnon’s seizure of Briseis – plays out as in the classical narratives but with that deeper focus and from a closer perspective.

Odysseus, much like Lucifer, is a hard character for an author to get right; both need to be somewhat outside the narrative (unless you’re writing the actual Odyssey or Paradise Lost), and both need – despite not taking centre stage – to be the most interesting person on it. An Odysseus who is not nudging the narrative slyly is not Odysseus at all. He’s well done here, quickly brought out and given a clear identity against the others. His wiliness and underlying humanity – the man of twists and turns – come through without being forced. One of Miller’s strengths, I think, is the ability to give more weight to the familiar characters without striking the wrong note; I recognise in her characters the Odysseus and the Chiron in my head.

Patroclus is not a character who tends to get much focus in other works, and – to be entirely honest – I’ve never really cared for him before this book. The Song of Achilles does a lot to change that, giving him more depth and justification. It’s difficult to write a convincing love story when everyone already knows – and has known for centuries -that it ends badly; readers are reluctant to fully invest in the emotional labour. Miller’s characterisation of Patroclus, the complexity of his viewpoint and his love, makes it worth effort. It’s not a happy story, but it hits the right notes and ends without leaving you feeling cheated.

As is almost certainly coming across, I was very impressed by this. I started reading it late at night, and got far less sleep than I intended. This is a fresh angle on an ancient tale that manages to keep much of the core of the myth, with well-tuned prose that explores the emotional side without distracting from the overarching narrative. I’m very glad I read it.

Overall, this is very, very good

Buy it here.

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