My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Length: 352 pages
Release date: 20 September 2011
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. By all rights their paths should never cross, but Achilles takes the shamed prince as his friend, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’ mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But then word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus journeys with Achilles to Troy, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
Profoundly moving and breathtakingly original, this rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story, and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human heart.
“Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”
When I fell in love with Madeline Miller’s Circe about a month ago, I knew I had to go back and read her debut novel. While Circe is and likely will always remain my personal favourite, The Song of Achilles is no disappointment. A moving, heartfelt tale of love and loss, it presents a refreshingly smart and gritty retelling of the Iliad.
Patroclus has always been an overlooked, underrated character when we think of Troy. Ask me before this novel, and I could have spoken briefly about Achilles, Paris, Helen or Agamemnon, but Patroclus–who? It’s similar in the glamourised 2004 movie, which shines the light on the campy grandeur of the siege’s greatest warriors and rewrites Patroclus as Brad Pitt Achilles’s cousin. Blockbusters obviously are not obliged to be culturally faithful, but they reflect popular perspective. You couldn’t be faulted for buying into Troy‘s sanitised presentation of the war.
Miller’s Patroclus is not a charismatic protagonist. He has little talent or gravitas, and is more likely to shy from a crowd than to embrace it. That’s exactly what makes him such a powerful narrator. Surrounded by men who wish to etch their reputations in blood, Patroclus’s quiet perceptiveness and compassion make him uniquely sympathetic.
Compared to Circe’s world-weary wit, Patroclus’s voice is far less refined, which is only to be expected considering how many more years the immortal Circe has had to live. The two narrators share some similarities, their rather modern senses of justice amongst them, but the fact that one is a goddess and one an ordinary mortal shapes their stories in distinct paths. Constantly aware of his numbered days, Patroclus knows to live in the moment. The Song of Achilles is thus dogged by frequent, oftentimes jarring switches between the past and present tense, as Patroclus’s narration catches up to the point at which he’s telling the story.
The book’s themes are terrifyingly human. Terrifyingly so, because glimpsing humanity from The Song of Achilles is like watching humans through a soiled glass. The figures of the Iliad are larger than life, their virtues exaggerated into vices and their vices accentuated until they become fatal flaws. Such makes an epic tragedy. In that sense, Miller’s novel can be quite hard to stomach; aside from Patroclus, Achilles and Odysseus, most characters feel tightly constrained by their roles in the canon. The development of secondary characters isn’t as strong as it is in Circe, by which time of writing Miller had found her own voice to be confident diverging from Homer.
Additionally, The Song of Achilles‘s heroes are trapped by Fate. That’s the capital Fate of Greek mythology, personified in the omnipotent Moirai. Their divine law is inviolable, their prophecies guaranteed to pass despite–often, in a cruel stroke of irony, because of–mortals’ best efforts to thwart destiny. Miller’s debut does not shy away from engaging the question of whether heroes can ever achieve happy endings when they are trapped by fate. For sure, it’s when her protagonists are most trapped by circumstance that they show their strongest selves, Patroclus and Circe alike in this regard. The Song of Achilles may be a tragedy, but it’s certainly not devoid of optimism, as evidenced by a perfectly fitting ending.
The main reason I don’t love this book as much as Miller’s second is its first half’s plodding pace. While her ex-boyfriend’s long-ago criticism of the novel’s first iteration as “Homeric fan fiction” is much too harsh, The Song of Achilles‘s beginning chapters do carry a few resemblances to the conventions of fanfiction. For some hundred odd pages, the story remains startlingly innocent, filled with occasionally explicit romance and sparse action. That changes by the second half, in which the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is better realised and emotionally richer.
One of the highlights of that second half is Odysseus. I wouldn’t be surprised if Miller has a soft spot for the character. At the very least, she has a gift for writing this Odysseus, who, especially when knowing his future from Circe, is no hero. This Odysseus is instead endlessly fascinating, with always another ruthless trick up his sleeve. This Odysseus is one of the most alluring figures of Miller’s books.
As I’ve come to expect, Madeline Miller writes in stunning detail, transporting the reader to the world of mythological Ancient Greece with an ease drilled in by years of passionate research. It’s an ugly world, and her siege of Troy is a painful amalgamation of pride and greed, a war without winners that consumes thousands of lives because everyone wants to have the last word. And in the midst of it, an intimate love story between two people who brave fate to stay together. Thanks to the accepted convention that romance novels must have happy endings, The Song of Achilles would never be mistaken for a romance novel, but it’s nothing if not achingly romantic.