about       archive       goodreads

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The longlist for the 2013 Women's Prize for Fiction has been announced this week and I, personally, am quite pleased by it. There are quite a few really intriguing titles on that list. But behind the times as I am, I have just finished reading last year's winner. I'm continuing with my current drive to read outside my comfort zone and this is certainly not my usual fare. You know I tend to have a tentative approach to the world of historical fiction, never mind historical fiction with a fantastical element to it (sea nymphs, centaurs, a world where gods and man interact on a regular basis?). But the reviews from the blogging community have been glowing so I decided it was well worth giving it a go.

As a bonus, this book could have been made to fit a number of categories in my Literary Exploration challenge. It certainly has elements of fantasy and the supernatural. Some readers have really enjoyed the romance, but I have already ticked that genre off my list. And of course it would easily fulfil the historical fiction requirement. But on reflection I decided that this story of a skinny, shy boy who travels all over Greece overcoming all manner of obstacles and peril on the way, just to stand by his best friend, would be a perfect candidate for my adventure read.


ADVENTURE

Patroclus is a somewhat weedy and reserved child - a prince, yes, but of an often-overlooked Greek province, and forever a disappointment to his father. He brings ultimate shame on his family when he ends up exiled from the kingdom and is forced to go and live under another king who is known for his kindness in taking homeless and refugee boys under his wing. There he befriends the king's son, the infamous Achilles, half god and half man, who is prophesied to grow up to become the best warrior the world has ever known. The two soon become more than friends and Patroclus cannot help but follow him anywhere, over mountains and sea, as he fulfils his destiny as the most eminent fighter in the Trojan wars. He finds himself inextricably drawn into the perilous web that fate has spun for Achilles.


I have to admit that despite having a reasonably recent background in studying Greek to GCSE level, I haven't read any of The Iliad at all (our set texts were The Odyssey and The Murder Of Herodes) so despite having a vague idea of how things would unfold a lot of the story was new to me. If I can claim any familiarity with the legend at all, it's with Statius' version involving Achilles' notoriously vulnerable heel. I haven't even seen the glossy Brad Pitt Hollywood adaptation. I'm not sure how a prior knowledge of the outcome of the story would affect your enjoyment of this book, if at all.

Now from what I do know of this tale it seems Miller has done a great job of putting a new spin on it. She has managed to strike the perfect balance between friendship, romance, action and adventure. The extent of her research and her familiarity with the original text is obvious. She has managed to make the events feel fresh at the same time as remaining faithful to her source material. There is something relaxing and soothing about her writing style. There are echoes of Homer throughout the compelling lyrical prose and sparse, precise dialogue. Personally, I would have loved to see some Homeric epithets kept in ('swift-footed Achilles' etc) as an extra knowing nod to the original Greek.

Unfortunately I found neither of the main characters particularly likeable. Is this down to Miller or the way they are portrayed in the original Iliad? I don't know. Achilles comes across as quite obnoxious and egoistic...dare I say it, a bit of a spoiled brat! I guess that's possibly to be expected given the fact that he is the son of a goddess, but it certainly made me question the unwavering nature of Patroclus' devotion to him.  Patroclus is wonderfully kind and compassionate, but for a large part of the book I wished he would stop mooning around and fawning over his lover and show a bit more gusto. The villains are portrayed wonderfully, though. The sea nymph Thetis, Achilles' mother, and his son Neoptolemus, sent a chill down my spine every time they appeared in a scene. All the kings and warriors sort of merged in to one and I found myself flicking back several times trying to remember how they were all related. But my favourite character of them all was Odysseus and I would love to read more about him. He just seemed like the perfect hero, with all the wit that Achilles lacked, and without so much bravado.

I know so many people who have adored this book and interestingly they are often people who have very varied and contemporary literary tastes; who I wouldn't necessarily expect to enjoy this Classical romance. So if your interest has been piqued at all it's definitely worth a try. I almost wish Miller had taken on The Odyssey instead as that is a story much closer to my heart and I loved her portrayal of Odysseus. Does anybody know of any modern re-tellings of the Odyssey? Please let me know as I'd be very keen to give them a try!

11 comments:

  1. Do you think reading Iliad first would help this novel?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am a bit hesitant to say, as I haven't read it. I don't think it would affect your enjoyment of the novel as such, but you would probably have more of an appreciation of Miller's writing skill if you have some familiarity with Homer. To be honest I probably wouldn't have rated it quite as highly if I hadn't ever read any classical Greek literature.

      Delete
  2. I have read millions of reviews of this book from people that liked it very very much, so I purchated the book in Christmas in amazon :) But I still haven't read it!
    I have read Iliad time ago but I have to say I don't remember the whole story and anyway, I don't like Greek classics very much, I'm afraid. But if it is written in a contemporary way, I think I could like it.
    I will tell you soon!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I haven't read this book yet but I do intend on doing so - I've just heard so many positive reviews so I think I'll give it a try.
    Thanks
    Lynn
    P.S. if you find a retelling of the Odysseus then I hope you'll post about it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will definitely let you know if I come across anything. A few people have said that Miller is rumoured to be tackling the Odyssey next, though, which would be great!

      Delete
  4. I've heard that Miller's second novel is going to be a re-telling of The Odyssey which I think I would prefer. There is just something about The Odyssey that gets me everytime. There is a book called The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason which you might like. It reinvents various books of the Odyssey in some really amazing ways. I recently reviewed it on my blog if you wanted to know more about it :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That would be great if it's true! I think that most of the things I didn't like about this book were left over from the original rather than a problem with Miller's writing, so I'd love to read her take on the Odyssey. Heading over to your blog now to read that review, thanks.

      Delete
  5. Hmmm. Interesting that you say you didn't like the main characters. I really loved this book. I agree that Achilles was a spoiled brat, but he was much more of a spoiled brat in The Iliad than he was in this book. I think Miller just took the character as-was and then gave him a little more depth - so his brattiness seemed in some ways explained in this book.

    Like that whole thing with him sitting in his tent for weeks pouting because his concubine was taken from him? He just let his allies get slaughtered because he wanted to throw a temper tantrum. But Miller put a bit of a twist on that story so that he didn't seem QUITE as selfish.

    I think it would have been impossible to write Achilles as a completely likable character and still remained so true to the plot of Iliad.

    I hope you enjoy some of the books for this year's WPF. I'm currently trying to get through the list. But I also planned on getting through the Wellcome Trust books last year, and STILL haven't managed. So we'll see how far I get. Hopefully I'll get a few more of them hammered out before this year's award. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That may well be the case - I got the feeling that most of the things I disliked about this book were aspects that were left over from the original texts rather than Miller's design.

      There are a few of the books on the WPF list that have caught my eye but I'm not going to commit to getting through them all because that's a sure fire way to guarantee I won't read any at all, probably! I'm so bad at taking on these challenges. I still have a couple from the Wellcome Prize list that are waiting to be read, too!

      Delete
  6. I really, really want to read this and have for a while, but couldn't afford it when it first came out. It was so popular that I've been expecting it to pop up in charity shops for ages, and it just hasn't! If I don't find a second hand copy soon, I might actually have to crack and buy the damn thing :/

    As far as I can remember, the characters weren't particularly likeable in The Iliad either. It was more about their heroic pursuits, honour and glory than their winning personalities :p

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh no! I got my copy via Read It Swap It, and then came across a copy in a charity shop just a few days later - so they are out there somewhere! I love a second-hand book-finding quest, though, when you finally get your hands on a copy you'll have such a sense of achievement!

      Delete