Book review: Madeline Miller’s “The Song of Achilles”

The book is more impressive than the trailer, trust me.

When it comes to publishing debuts, language professor Madeline Miller has certainly had it better than most.

After working on her debut novel, “The Song of Achilles” for 10 years, Miller finally found her book published late last year by HarperCollins.Not only that, her novel was met with almost universal acclaim. Man Booker Prize finalist Emma Donoghue named her the spiritual kin of beloved historical novelist Mary Renault, while The Guardian praised her prose as “more poetic than almost any translation of Homer.”

Early this year, Miller was awarded the Orange Prize, a £30,000 prize that recognizes English language fiction written by women.

While there may not have been as much fanfare when it made its modest debut in local bookstores — sightings are few and far between — a look at this young adult novel set in the time of the mythical Trojan War certainly proves that all the lavish praise has certainly been deserved.

“The Song of Achilles” is told from the point of view of Patroclus, an awkward young prince who gets exiled to the kingdom of Phthia after accidentally killing a nobleman’s son over a pair of dice. It is in Phthia that he meets the king’s son, Achilles, the child of a goddess, “the best of all the Greeks”, and everything that he is not.

Despite their differences, the two young boys become fast friends, training together in the arts of war and medicine. The pair even defy Achilles’ mother Thetis, who despises all things mortal.

When the Trojan War breaks out, the two are drawn into the conflict for different reasons: Achilles by the promise of fame and glory; Patroclus out of desire to watch over his friend. But as the war rages on far longer than both of them expected, the pair find their relationship tested — and they may end up paying a price neither of them can bear.

“The Song of Achilles” certainly isn’t something that one reads for the surprise ending. Built on the framework of the Iliad and other ancient texts that expand on it story, Miller makes certain that every event that happens in the book hews as closely as possible to the original texts.

While this decision could have certainly worked against her — who want to read a story you already know the ending to? — Miller manages to prevent this from happening by taking the focus away from the big names that dominated the Iliad and focusing instead on the smaller players involved in the epic story.

Patroclus, while playing a pivotal role in the later books of the Iliad, basically plays second fiddle to Achilles throughout the epic. “The Song of Achilles” is told entirely thorough his perspective, and Miller gives him a voice so poignant and passionate at the same time that it’s hard not to be enthralled by it.

Minor characters that figured in the story of the Trojan War, such as the princess Deidameia, the Trojan woman Briseis, and Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia, also receive similar treatment, with Miller giving them far more depth and personality than they originally had.

Miller’s faithfulness to the source material will certainly also be appreciated by fans of Greek mythology. There is a joy to seeing Miller stay close to the Iliad without compromising the story she is trying to tell, while all of Patroclus’ observations and pronouncements seem much more poignant to someone who knows how things will end for him and Achilles.

Perhaps the only striking change that Miller has made is the characterization of the goddess Thetis, Achilles’ mother. While a benevolent force in the Iliad, she is a quiet but effective menace in “The Song of Achilles”, eerily otherworldly and intimidating. When her plans and prejudices work against her in the end, it is a satisfying and vindicating read.

However, it is Miller’s treatment of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles that gives “The Song of Achilles” its heart.

While the Iliad doesn’t explicitly state that Patroclus and Achilles are lovers — it is still a  matter of debate among scholars — Miller casts the two as such. Her handling of the relationship between the two is certainly commendable.

There is something innocent about the love that springs between the two, starting with a friendship that begins in their childhood, turning into the cloying sweetness of adolescent love, before maturing into a partnership between adults. It develops so organically through the text that may find themselves as excited to find out how the lovers fare as they are about the Trojan War.

The deftness with which Miller develops this relationship makes it especially painful when the lovers meet their inevitable end. For those familiar with the Iliad, this is even more pronounced — everything that the two characters say is tinged with meaning and foreshadowing. If for nothing else, readers may just want to see how Miller deals with the fate that Patroclus and Achilles meets in the end.

With well-drawn characters, a plot that remains compelling even if it is something most everyone is familiar with, and a heart-wrenching climax that is sure to bring tears to readers’ eyes, “The Song of Achilles” certainly looks set to develop a mythical reputation of its own.

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