Review: The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

Song of Achilles_BloomsburyThe Stats
Book: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Published: Bloomsbury, 2011
Of interest: Winner, 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction

The Plot
A retelling of Homer’s Iliad (the Trojan War) from the point of view of Achilles’ childhood friend and lover, Patroclus.

My Verdict
Took me a few chapters to really warm to the characters and the writing style, but from there I couldn’t put it down.

My mother-in-law loaned me this book with such praise that I felt certain it would disappoint.

It didn’t.

I am a huge fan of mythology and loved studying Latin and the classics in high school. I have no objection to retellings – particularly when the story is as strong and timeless as the tale of Troy – but I was nonetheless pleasantly surprised to find this retelling so fresh and original.

Like so many others, I’ve read and watched this story from many perspectives over many years, but Miller has used her own classical teaching background to draw out different, more obscure parts of the tale. She’s also used some creative licence, and I think that’s a great thing. Too often authors can feel wedded to details that the Ancient Greeks changed regularly and on a whim.

Miller has truly created a ‘song’ – in the manner of the ancient bards. And she has done so with the greatest of integrity and sensitivity, making it feel not like the imaginings of a modern author, but like a natural extension of the original tales.

With the love affair between Brad Pitt’s testosterone-fuelled Achilles and Rose Byrne’s fiery Briseis fresh in my mind (it seems to be on monthly repeat across free-to-air TV at the moment), I was not sure I was going to come at this ‘softie’ Achilles who wants to avoid the war so he can chill out with his sweetie pie. But again, Miller surprised me. Her exploration of the conflict Achilles feels between his love for Patroclus and his thirst for glory was a nice new hook on which to hang an old story. Knowing, as pretty much everyone does, how it all must end also gives the book a nice sense of impending doom, particularly in its most idyllic moments.

While some critics called it hamfisted and clumsy, the clumiser of sentences actually recalled to me the translations of epic poetry in high school Latin, and I suspect as a Latin and Ancient Greek teacher herself, this was a deliberate choice by Miller, not an unhappy accident. Overall, I found the prose quite striking, the characters skilfully wrought, and the story original and moving.

If you liked this, you might also like:
The Song of Troy (Colleen McCullough)
The Iliad (Homer)
The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood)

Other reviews:
The Telegraph’s Philip Womack calls it “a triumph of glitzy story-telling over literary depth”, but still worth a read

An unimpressed Daniel Mendelsohn (NY Times) writes here that the book is “crippled” by problems of structure and tone

Mary Doria Russell at The Washington Post is more positive here, calling the book “moving”, “gutsy” and “beautifully done” and pointing out that the very word “homeric” can be used to mean “overripe prose”

Blogger Clare McBride (The Literary Omnivore) gives it 2 stars here, calling it a “fun” read which unfortunately comes unstuck in places by virtue of Miller’s sacrifice of the “historical record” in order to preserve her love story between Achilles and Patroclus

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