Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesMaybe it was the fact that it was a retelling of the Iliad, but I wasn’t expecting this book to be quite so trashy. I don’t mean in a bad way. It has been described as Homeric fan fiction, which is probably a bit unfair, but the exploration of Achilles and Patroclus’s burgeoning attraction and love has a distinct whiff of YA about it. Historic romance, is probably the best way to describe it, and if you’re on board with that then you’ll not be disappointed by The Song of Achilles.

The premise of the novel, which took Miller 10 years to write, came from her fascination at Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’s death. While I think the upshot of the scholarship about the Iliad is that you’ll never know whether Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship as we would understand it today – given the various homoerotic practices in Greek armies of the day, and also the tradition of married men indulging in boys with no apparent censure – Miller gives their love full rein in her version of events.

Her writing of the infatuation is beautiful and lyrical, if bordering on the teenage poetry: ‘He smelled like almonds and earth. He pressed against me, crushing my lips to wine.’ But against the backdrop of one of the most legendary wars of all time, the romance starts to wear a little thin. I started to find the moments that Patroclus has to himself, learning to tend to the wounded, or his relationship with Briseis (although you can see that coming a mile off – I guess the downside of reworking a classic legend is that its plot twists aren’t exactly unexpected) a relief from the constant tortured adoration of Achilles. Take this example of when Achilles gives Briseis to Agamemnon as part of a defence of his wounded pride:

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is as hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew.

Patroclus’s fury was a welcome relief from the adoration, but it is also an example of the very teenage passions that course through the novel’s veins – and it’s still all about Achilles.

And this was the major downside for me in this book: Miller has committed to a retelling of the relationship, not the war, through Patroclus’s eyes, and so things that you would expect to be part of a fully fleshed out character’s story –the fighting, his relationship with the other men, his feelings about the politics – all this is sidelined if not downright neglected; everything is refracted through the lens of his love for Achilles. Maybe I’m just not enough of a romantic, but I don’t believe that’s actually how relationships work – even epic ones – and it’s that that gives it its slightly angsty, YA feel. That said, it is an eminently devourable read, and I definitely wasn’t above shedding a tear at the end – it is definitely good angsty YA.

It did make me question whether the book would have won the Orange Prize for a similar telling of a modern-day relationship, and I suspect it wouldn’t. Once you remove the glamour of the ‘untellable story, retold’ angle, it becomes just another tortured romance (see The Forgotten Waltz for another shortlisted romance that was much more interestingly written, but without the benefit of famous characters). But as the ‘original’ tortured romance, it manages to sidestep accusations of unoriginality and instead becomes a ‘modern retelling of a classic’. Nifty.

Rating: 

In a tweet: Beautiful men, feeling beautiful feelings, in beautiful bronze. Also a war happens.

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