Madeline Miller: “The Song of Achilles”

The Song of Achilles  The Song of Achilles

‘You have eked out ten more years of life, and I am glad for you. But the rest of us–‘ his mouth twists. ‘The rest of us are forced to wait for your leisure. You are holding us here, Achilles. You were given a choice and you chose. You must live by it now.’

Novel
Pages: 352
First Published: 2011

Synopsis: 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. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, 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’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

‘May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.’ His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. ‘He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.’

Review: My copy of this book is so coated in quotes from gushing reviews that my first impression was “There’s no way this book is going to live up to all this.” And for the first few chapters, I continued to believe that. But once the story got going, it turned into a book that I stayed up too late reading, and picked up again as soon as I got home from work. While you won’t hear me say that this book is perfect, I am definitely willing to say that I loved it. More specific comments in point form:

· If I’m to be totally honest, I have to say I’m not a fan of Miller’s writing style, but it’s difficult for me to pinpoint why. Perhaps because it’s a little too vague sometimes, or the descriptions are a little too over-the-top sometimes, or perhaps it just annoyed me that I only saw one contraction in the entire book. I also couldn’t figure out why, when most of the scenes were written in past tense, there would occasionally be a scene written in present tense. But at the same time, almost every chapter had at least one paragraph that was written so beautifully I had to reread it once or twice before moving on, and I also really loved the way she wrote the battle scenes — like every fight was just a mess of people running around and crashing into each other on the field. So in the end I guess I feel like my comments on Miller’s style all cancel each other out.

· This book fails the Bechdel test, which is interesting to me because the reason it fails is not because it doesn’t have female characters speaking about things other than men — it fails because not enough of those women have names.

· Let’s talk about a scene that really bothered me! Potential spoiler, so I’ll put it in white and you can highlight to read it: Achilles is unable to prevent Iphigenia’s death even though he is standing right there, and even though in every other scene where speed is required of him he responds by being, as usual, impossibly fast. Miller goes to great pains to have both Odysseus and the narrative explain why Achilles wasn’t able to react in time, but it all boils down to “he wasn’t fast enough,” a reason I find hard to accept when in the rest of the novel it is made perfectly clear that Achilles is never not fast enough. In a similar vein, I’m pretty sure the scene where Patroclus pulls a Bella Swan and spends a month doing nothing but being miserable was only necessary because the story’s timeline wouldn’t have worked out otherwise. So that was a little annoying.

· I’ve never been a fan of Achilles and Briseis being in love, so I really liked their relationship here. I actually really enjoyed how the characters in this novel seem at times to be at odds with the way they are usually portrayed. I was constantly thinking, “Wait — Character A just said he believes X, even though in the Iliad he says he believes Y, and follows through on it when he does Z. How is Z going to happen if he believes X instead???” I was happily surprised by the way Miller gets her revamped characters to hit their marks. With the exclusion of the scene I mentioned above, it never felt forced in any way, and in fact I often felt like the new character motivations allowed me to see the events of the war through a new perspective. Maybe it was because of this that, as I read this novel, I felt like I was rediscovering why I love the Trojan War story so much. So … that was awesome.

· Another relationship I enjoyed was that between Odysseus and Diomedes. Frustrating that they were only allowed like three scenes of banter!!

· This is a pretty nerdy thing to get so excited about, but I don’t care; I LOVED the foreshadowing in this book. If I have one complaint about Trojan War novels in general, it’s that their foreshadowing is usually ramped up to DEAFENING; usually Cassandra or a prophecy is put in charge of telling us exactly what’s going to happen, and that’s that. Of course there is a certain amount of pathos in watching characters stumble towards a fate they are aware of but are still unable to avoid, but I think I prefer foreshadowing that at least attempts to be subtle. Yes, prophecies abound in The Song of Achilles, but there is a bonus layer of foreshadowing on top of them that is subtle, clever, and heartwrenching — the kind that twists the knife if you already know how the story goes. It was so good I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, lest I ruin it for someone who hasn’t read the novel yet.

· … Some of you might be interested to know that I very nearly typed The Song that Killed Achilles in the above paragraph. TWO GREAT BOOKS THAT TASTE GREAT TOGETHER?!

· I love how this book doesn’t steer away from the questions raised by its story, but deals with them head-on. Who is more important, a friend or a stranger? What, if anything, is worth trading your life for? Is fame worth fighting for, even if you’ll be remembered as a villain? There was a lot more discussion in this book than I expected, and I really enjoyed it.

· I also enjoyed the parts where Miller made certain ancient Greek words a part of the story, but I found Patroclus’ explanations of them confusing. Who is he explaining them for? Who is he telling the story to? I was willing to ignore this until the end of the book left me even more confused about it. At the same time, though, I’m not sure how else she could have gotten away with using Greek words, and I do like that she used them.

· I think I’m a little picky about how the gods are portrayed in Trojan War retellings. I mention this only to say that I loved the way the gods are portrayed in this book. Apollo is much creepier here than I’d ever seen him before, but it works perfectly. I loved all his scenes, and the way the plague was described in order to clue you into his involvement was fantastic.

· If the summary didn’t give it away, the focus of The Song of Achilles is the romantic relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Everything I’ve read about sexuality in ancient Greece (admittedly not much) has suggested that the ancient Greeks didn’t categorise sexuality the way we do now, and that it was pretty common for an adult man to have slept with both men and women. In The Song of Achilles, however, it’s made quite clear that both Achilles and Patroclus are gay in the twenty-first century sense of the word. It is also made clear that they feel the need to be careful about who they reveal their relationship to. As a result, it was difficult for me not to feel that a modern interpretation of sexuality was being applied to a story that was otherwise very carefully set in the Bronze Age. The reasons for Achilles and Patroclus to hide their relationship are mentioned a few times — several people mention that Patroclus would not be seen as being good enough for Achilles, and Odysseus says that it’s common for boys to sleep with each other only until they reach a certain age — but I still feel unsure as to whether the novel’s portrayal is accurate to what we know of Bronze Age society. Maybe I just have to read up on this a bit more. Either way, I guess it’s kind of neat that here’s a book whose title character is gay and spends several chapters dressed as a woman … but could still kill you just by looking at you.

· This book is narrated in the first person by Patroclus, which made me wonder how the last few chapters of the book would be handled. In the hope of avoiding spoilers, I will just say that they were done better than I anticipated. I was also very surprised by how strongly they affected me. I seriously tear up at everything, so if I had just teared up at the end of this book I wouldn’t even be mentioning it. Fair warning, friends: I cried off and on through the last four chapters, and then bawled for ten minutes straight after reading the last page. I genuinely think the last time I reacted to a book this way was when I read Inside the Walls of Troy … when I was thirteen. I wish I could say why this book affected me so strongly. Because I somehow managed to forget just how dark Achilles’ story gets? The last few chapters were so raw and intense and lonely, the last few pages such a heartbreaking mess of despair and hope. If you’ve made it through the almost 2,000(!!) words of this post you know that I have a few criticisms of this book, but they are not half enough to stop me from recommending it. Unbelievably, the gushing reviews of this book did not build it up too much; The Song of Achilles is easily my favourite of the Trojan War novels that I’ve blogged about so far.

Buy it at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca

Achilles turns to me. He is breathing quickly, the tips of his ears pinking with excitement. He seizes my hand, and crows to me of the day’s events, of how his name was on everyone’s lips, of the power of his absence, big as a Cyclops, walking heavily amongst the soldiers. The excitement of the day has flared through him, like flame in dry grass. For the first time, he dreams of killing: the stroke of glory, his inevitable spear through Hector’s heart. My skin prickles to hear him say so.
‘Do you see?’ he says. ‘It is the beginning!’
I cannot escape the feeling that, below the surface, something is breaking.

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