Monday 19 March 2018

Review: Historical fiction: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Bloomsbury. £18.99

The story of Achilles is as old as time itself, existing in folklore long before Homer formalised it in The Iliad.

The French poet Raymond Queneau said "every great work of literature is either The Iliad or The Odyssey", and it's true, these classic stories of the human struggle have been told a million times.

Madeline Miller, a classics scholar and teacher, has just published a new interpretation in her debut novel, The Song Of Achilles, which tells the story from the point of view of Achilles's relationship with his friend, Patroclus.

In The Iliad, Patroclus appears just a handful of times and when he dies Achilles's reaction is so extreme it prompts him to take revenge on Hector even though it is signing his own death warrant.

The book is set in Greece, in the age of Achilles. He is the half-god son of King Peleus and the sea-nymph, Thetis. His destiny is to be the greatest warrior ever known.

Patroclus is everything Achilles is not -- mousy, awkward, ordinary with little natural talent or elegance. When he kills the son of a local nobleman, his father disowns him and sends him to live with Achilles's father who is known for fostering troubled young boys.

Here, Patroclus and Achilles grow close and their friendship blossoms into love.

Thetis is enraged, believing Patroclus is not good enough for her son and tries everything to separate them.

When Helen of Sparta is kidnapped by the men of Troy, Achilles's father enlists his men to fight in her name. Achilles, knowing his own skill as a warrior, is persuaded to fight; while Patroclus, ever-loyal, follows him into war.

Miller somehow (and breathtakingly so) mixes high-action commercial plotting with writing of such beautiful delicacy you sometimes have to stop and stare.

The story gallops along under the shadow of mortality like the rabbit beneath the shadow of the eagle, as Miller puts it, and in doing so it perfectly mimics both The Iliad and The Odyssey and the human struggle itself.

In The Iliad, Achilles says: "Look at me. I am the son of a great man. A goddess was my mother.

"Yet death and inexorable destiny are waiting for me."

This is the story of love and the story of death, of loss, of grief, of letting go. The story of life.

It is one of the greatest stories of all time and Madeline Miller tells it with extraordinary skill and moving compassion.

Edel Coffey

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