Madeline Miller: THE SONG OF ACHILLES

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury 2011
352 pages
4/5 stars

I’ve been seeing this book around constantly. It has been talked about in a very similar way to that which lead me to read Donna Tartt’s Secret History – which I enjoyed very much – and so I decided it was finally time to pick it up. After all, I studied Latin for a few years, and mythology, both Roman and Greek, became familiar during that time.

Whether knowledge of how the War of Troy spans out in The Iliad is beneficial or not in the experience of reading this book, it is hard to say. What I can say is, I’m certain it makes a world of difference.

(No specific spoilers, in case some of you haven’t happened upon the details of this story. Or seen the movie Troy. That one with Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, etc.)

Told in first person, we get to see the story from the point of view of Patroclus, a young prince who is banished from his own kingdom and taken under the wing of Achilles’s father. Patroclus and Achilles grow up as close companions, until Paris takes Helen to Troy and war begins.

When I discovered that this was a novel in first person, I was sceptical: you guys know by now that I’m not a fan of it. On top of that, the narrator is a child at the beginning, another no-no for me. If you’re like me, please accept my assurance that it gets better: the childhood bit isn’t terribly long. This isn’t a Bildungsroman: the main concentration is on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, and on the predictions made by gods that are passed on in different cryptic forms.

If you’re familiar with the story, the predictions aren’t all that interesting, because you know how things will go. However, Miller has made the first of her excellent choices in the construction of this novel by placing so much emphasis on the relationship of the two companions: if you know what’s going to happen, the emotional impact is much better, and the characters show an absolutely beautiful and realistic fallibility and the way we are blind to our futures, even our present. If you’re not familiar with the story, you get a good puzzle, and still some of the emotional impact. I can’t say if it’s lesser, but I imagine it would be. This makes for a highly re-readable book, though. Well played, Miller!

The other excellent decision Miller has made is the choice of her narrator. The mortal, somewhat insecure, not especially remarkable Patroclus is a far more relatable and interesting narrator than the demi-god Achilles. This decision is also made clever by the outcome of the story – I was rather concerned about it at first, but I fully understand the decision, and choosing Patroclus as a narrator is one of the best things about this book.

I’ve given four stars for the simple reason that the prose doesn’t quite capture me, and that I probably had my expectations up too high: I was promised this book would break my heart, and it didn’t. Well, not much, anyway. I did get rather teary-eyed, and I would call it moving, but there are books that have had more of an impact. This might again have to do with being familiar with the story and knowing what to expect.

I recommend this one though! It’s really rather good, and it won’t take you seven years to read – it’s pretty short and easy to read.

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