From The Independent, September 11 2011
Vivian Groskop reviews
The Song of Achilles, By Madeline Miller
For a whistlestop tour around the life and times of Achilles, you'd be hard pressed to find a better guide than Madeline Miller.
This young, first-time novelist has a BA and MA from Brown University in Latin and Ancient Greek and has studied at the Yale School of Drama, specialising in adapting classical tales for a modern audience. Something about this accomplished and enjoyable novel makes you feel it's the book she's been working up to for her whole life thus far. And that's very satisfying for the reader indeed. The Song of Achilles is original, clever and in a class of its own.
The setting is Greece in the age of heroes. When Patroclus, a complicated and stubborn young prince, accidentally kills a man, he is exiled to the kingdom of Phthia. There, he is raised by King Peleus, who is the father of Achilles, a youth the same age as Patroclus. Whereas Patroclus is geeky, awkward and self-conscious, Achilles is strong, handsome and regal. "This is what a prince should be," thinks Patroclus. They become unlikely companions and, eventually, lovers.
Sex aside, so far this sounds like something out of a prep-school classics lesson, circa 1984. But Miller works hard to transcend the potentially preachy limitations of her material, and The Song of Achilles is an incredibly compelling and seductive read. Her skill is considerable: she has to make us believe in Achilles and Patroclus almost as if they were modern-day characters in a Hollywood movie. (I have to confess to seeing a young Brad Pitt as Achilles throughout; Patroclus would probably be Steve Carell, who played the 40-year-old virgin in the movie of that name. In fact, both Pitt and Carell are too old for these roles, and no one would want to see the sex scenes.)
This is a tale of love and betrayal set against the backdrop of the epically long Trojan War. The gods are continually intervening and trying to make sense of things, while the men rampage around trying to appease the gods and get what they want at the same time. Achilles spends most of his time brandishing his sword and killing people without really registering it. He doesn't know his own strength.
There is one man whom Achilles must avoid killing, and that is his arch-rival Hector. He knows the prophecy: Hector dies first, then Achilles. So as long as Hector lives, Achilles is safe. As Patroclus puts it: "And Hector must live, always, he must never die, not even when he is old, not even when he is so withered that his bones slide beneath his skin like loose rocks in a stream."
Patroclus is a beautifully drawn, complex character; the real hero of the story. He is what we all fear we might be – pathetic in the face of fate – but his honesty and practicality make him a loveable chap, especially when he takes on the role of war camp medic and gets to know all of the great warriors' flaws. "Nestor with his throat syrup, honeyed and warmed, that he wanted at the end of a day; Menelaus and the opiate he took for his headaches; Ajax's acid stomach. It moved me to see how much they trusted me, turned hopeful faces towards me for comfort." (At this point in the novel, the seven-stone weakling of the piece was suddenly seeming a bit more like George Clooney to me.)
Although Patroclus purports to be a coward, we know that the only person whom he really fears is Achilles' mother, the cruel sea goddess Thetis. She is forever popping up with blood spilling out of her lips, kidnapping Achilles to warn him of the evil ways of men – and then to grieve that even she cannot save him from them. The interplay between the gods and men in The Song of Achilles is wonderful: no one is ever completely in control, although this doesn't stop both sides from persuading themselves that, at some particular moment, they are the ones with the power.
Of course, you can't write a book with "Achilles" in the title without it having a heel of some kind. And this novel's greatest flaw is also its key strength. It is arguably a book of Greek history for idiots. It's not a pretentious and complicated work. There is plenty of sexual tension (and actual sex), much of it homoerotic: Brokeback Mountain sets sail for Troy. But it has all this – necessarily, as sex is the whole point of the story, and much of Achilles' power rests on his masculine allure – without being remotely trashy. It's an entirely successful piece of writing, sitting comfortably between literary and commercial fiction genres. It does what the best novels do – it transports you to another world – as well as doing something that few novels bother to: it makes you feel incredibly clever.
Of course, if we were all better read in classical history, perhaps we would not need to read a novel like this at all. The Song of Achilles just made me glad that I was ignorant enough to really enjoy it.