Book review: The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles book cover“Sing to me, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles, son of Peleus, which brought countless ills upon the Acheans”

I picked up The Song of Achilles as part of my birthday haul, as I’d seen a few reviews of it and it looked wonderful. From the blurb:

Greece in the age of Heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. Here he is nobody, just another unwanted boy living in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. Achilles, ‘best of all the Greeks’, is everything Patroclus is not – strong, beautiful, the child of a goddess – and by all rights their paths should never cross. Yet one day, Achilles takes the shamed prince under his wing and soon their tentative companionship gives way to a steadfast friendship. As they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something far deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel and deathly pale sea goddess with a hatred of mortals. Fate is never far from the heels of Achilles. When word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, the men of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy in her name. Seduced by the promise of a glorious destiny, Achilles joins their cause. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus follows Achilles into war, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they have learned, everything they hold dear. And that, before he is ready, he will be forced to surrender his friend to the hands of Fate. 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.

I’ve always been fascinated by the stories of Ancient Greece, so this looked right up my street! I was not disappointed. Madeline Miller obviously knows the source material incredibly well: she has studied and taught both ancient Greek and Latin, and has past experience of adapting classical tales for a modern audience for the theatre, although this is her first novel. Her background, and her obvious knowledge of and love for the stories and characters of ancient Greece shines through the book. I have read the Iliad (although it was some years ago), and I was impressed by Miller’s mastery of the language, the lyricism and storytelling style of Homer’s epic. Her portrayal of the characters was also spot on: although she puts her own spin on them, they are recognisably the same people (and gods, etc!) that populate the Iliad.

Song of Achilles is first and foremost a love story, and a beautiful, heartbreaking one at that. I read a rather sniffy review in the Telegraph, which described it as “not a bodice-ripping, so let’s call it a breastplate-ripping romp… like homoerotic slash fiction”. This is deeply unfair, and made me wonder whether the reviewer had actually read the book. Yes, it’s a love story between two men; and yes, it is very sensual. It’s not explicit in any way though: the few sex scenes are actually very coyly described, which I thought was in keeping with Patroclus’ personality. To dismiss it as slash fiction completely misses the point.

One of the things I loved most about this book – and that gave me that odd sensation of wanting to keep reading because I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time not really wanting to reach the end – is the sense of crushing inevitability about it. If you know the story then you know it doesn’t end well for these two – but Patroclus as narrator is of course unaware of what lies ahead. It’s a wonderfully effective use of dramatic irony, and added another layer of gut wrenching pathos to the whole book.

I think this is one of my favourite books of the year so far. It was one of those reads that made me feel slightly resentful of any time spent doing other things than reading it. Just wonderful.

Verdict: 4.5/5

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2 Comments

  1. I liked your review and completely agree with you – I finished this a couple of weeks ago and I loved it! I read a similarly sniffy review from the New York Times I think – it just left me wondering if the reviewer had read the same book as me! Like you I knew the myth before I read it but telling of the story in the way she did only added to my enjoyment.

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  2. I am almost finished The Song of Achilles and am loving it! I know what you mean about not wanting it to end. So beautifully written!

    Reply

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