Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
I must admit, when I started hearing about this book everywhere, it intimidated me. I mean, it’s based on The Iliad, which I know I should have read but haven’t because it’s always struck me as likely to be hardgoing. But then everyone was just so enthusiastic that I thought, well I might give it a go. And then Simon of Savidge Reads kindly arranged with the publishers to give some copies to his readers and I was one of the lucky winners. And oh man am I glad. Best book of this year so far, no question.
What Miller has done is to take a relatively minor character – Patroclus – and follow his life through his voice. From a quick scan of Wikipedia I think she has changed some details but broadly followed the original story, just filling in the gaps with her amazing imagination.
Miller completely brings it all to life. There is no question that you are in Ancient Greece, that life is tough and war is brewing, and let’s not forget that I am no fan of war stories, but the narrative that Miller weaves had me entranced from start to finish.
The story is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which begins as friendship between boys, with Patroclus learning what it means to get to know a demi-god:
“He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”
Miller’s innovation is to concentrate on the love story rather than the war and gods and adventuring, although that is all there as well. Apparently Plato considered the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to be the ideal of romantic love, though it wasn’t made explicit in The Iliad and the exact nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries. Well, Miller makes no bones about it. This book makes it 100% clear and explicit that they are gay lovers. And in the most beautiful, heartbreaking, “life depends on this love” type of way. It is achingly romantic but never mushy. Because these are manly men. I mean, Achilles is a half-god-half-man warrior of legendary fury and skill.
Which brings me to another aspect of the story I was apprehensive of: this is a world where life includes gods and fantasy creatures and prophecies and magic. Miller handles this brilliantly. The historical setting allows people to be uncertain of the truth about stories they have heard about gods etc but superstitious enough to just accept magic when it appears. This is a very human story but somehow magical as well. In every respect of that word:
“‘She says that there is strangeness among the gods, that they are fighting with each other, taking sides in the war. She fears that the gods have promised me fame, but not how much.’
“This was a new worry I had not considered. But of course: our stories had many characters. Great Perseus, or modest Peleus. Heracles or almost-forgotten Hylas. Some had a whole epic, others just a verse.”
I’m not sure I am successfully communicating the beauty of this book, so you will just have to read it for yourself:
“This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head.”
Handily, The Readers is running a new book club and this is the first book on the reading list, podcast due imminently. And if you’re interested in the review that sparked my interest, you can check it out on Savidge Reads, here.
First published 2011 by Bloomsbury. Paperback edition published 2012.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012.