I’ve chosen this as the subject of my first review here because it’s one I’ve devoted plenty of thought to over the past year since I first read it. I’d seen it in bookshops a few times and been curious; after a while, on a particularly rainy day, I picked up my Kindle and looked through its library. I’d read everything there already, and didn’t feel like rereading – I wanted something new, but not too new (yes, I’m really that picky sometimes). I had a look in the Kindle store and spotted The Song of Achilles. Now, I read the Iliad when I was 15 years old, in GCSE Classical Civilisation, and I got an A* on the exam – simply because I loved the myths and the stories. Since I had plenty of back knowledge of the Ancient Greek myths (not that I’m an expert) I was interested – to see how the story of Achilles had been represented, to see how she’d treated each character, to immerse myself in that world in a way I hadn’t before, since a novel is such a different experience to reading an ancient poem or play.
The title, at first, might feel misleading; is this a song of Achilles, or is it really about Patroclus – given how unrepresented Patroclus is in other interpretations of the myths, from classical literature through the ages – Plato, to Shakespeare – to modern media, like the film Troy. Yet on further inspection once read, Miller’s choice of title is entirely appropriate; just like the Iliad is concerned only with the course of Achilles’ anger within the war, this book tracks Achilles’ song within Patroclus’ life. Achilles is almost unerringly usually shown as a fighting machine, a semi-god whose main attribute is how good he is at killing. Yet music is massively important throughout this book, and comes to represent their relationship.
The choice of Patroclus as narrator and the choice of using such an old story also, of course, means that we know the eventual conclusion of the book – we know where the two lovers are headed. The entire story weaves together different myths and ancient sources, careering towards the events of the Iliad, moving on past that until the end of the war and departure of the Greeks from Troy.
Before writing this review I had a conversation with one of my best friends (Let’s call her Miss A), with whom I took Classical Civilisation GCSE and A Level. We had always been friends, but bonded very strongly over our shared enthusiasm for the subject, and she is now studying Classics at university; when I first read this book I immediately recommended it to her. Since I want this blog to be about discussing fantastic books with other people, I decided to start by just chatting with her, and one of the suggestions she made really took me by surprise, because I hadn’t thought of it before. I’ve always thought about the choice of Patroclus as narrator to be brave because it means we know the ending; I still believe that this certainly says a lot about Miller’s skill in making the narrative of a story with a predetermined end full of character, invention and pace. Miss A pointed out that maybe one of the things that keeps us reading, as people who know the myths sitting behind the retelling, is the idea that we are wishing that the ending can be changed, that these two can survive the war and change their destinies. She’s right of course – the book in this way puts the reader right inside the characters, as they fight fate throughout the novel.
Miller says in ‘Finding Patroclus’, an article in the 2012 Waterstones exclusive paperback edition of the book, that she found a gap of detail about Patroclus in other sources that ‘frustrated the scholar in me, but delighted the author. And out of that gap The Song of Achilles was born.’ The intention of exploring the character is something done perfectly by this book, and yet the use of Patroclus as narrator and protagonist allows it to achieve something more. Her portrayal of a sensitive man, who does not enjoy the violence and gore that other explorations of the Trojan War tend to revel in, who enjoys sex for what it means in terms of love and not as a habit or ritual, begins us questioning some of the mythologised characters and events that a lot of us have grown up with.
The way that Patroclus views killing intrigues me; close to the start of the book (spoiler alert) when he is exiled from his father’s kingdom and disinherited for killing another boy. He comes to realise that his father’s disappointment was not for killing another boy, but for being so sensitive as to own up immediately (spoiler over). As readers, we can start to question to Greek attitude to killing and honour here, and as we move through the story, the fighting becomes more prominent. Always, right until the end when Patroclus (spoiler alert, unless you know the tale of the Iliad) goes into battle as Achilles (spoiler over) all of the fighting scenes focus in on Achilles; that final fight scene still does as Patroclus tries to inhabit the physicality of his lover. Miller asks us to look at the way that we glorify war and killing by awarding honours and remembrances to those who fight, the way that the honouring of bravery becomes an idealisation of killing. Patroclus copes with his revulsion of the gore by focusing on the beauty of his beloved – the half-god figure of Achilles becomes symbolic of the idolisation of war as heroism. The entire set-up of the Trojan War is about honour – Menelaus’ honour is compromised when Helen elopes with Paris, Tyndareus places all the suitor’s honour at stake if they do not fulfill their oath to protect her once the situation arises, Agamemnon’s actions over Chryseis are about honour and cause the death of huge amounts of Greeks, Achilles’ withdrawal from the war is over his honour in connection with Briseis. Miller places an extra interest on this though – (spoiler alert) – Achilles’ refusal to help Briseis becomes not only about his honour, since we have the ten years of narration since she was captured to build her character, and in particular where Miller builds a relationship between her and Patroclus. (spoiler over)
This, when I really think about it, is why I really love this book. The basis in mythology and classics has a lot to do with why I picked it up, and is why I maintain an academic interest. But the fact that I reread it to enjoy the characters, the prose, and the pace of the story, is down to the relationships that Miller builds; the humanisation of the far-away figures of legend, the dehumanisation of the Gods which achieves a startling intensity, the deep love and friendship between the narrator and his friend. We are oriented within a character who observes and absorbs a lot. What especially I enjoy though, which Miss A and I discussed at length, is the fact that the first-person narrative over an entire lifetime gives us such a deeper insight to character development than the ancient plays, where characters frequently change in the blink of an eye. The old story is respected and deepened by Miller’s treatment.
I’d recommend this book to many people; those who enjoy fantasy, mythology, relationship stories, those who are interested in portrayals of women and of homosexuality; it is an interesting delve into the realm of transposition and adaptation.
A simple Google search attributes the phrase ‘a good writer borrows, a great writer steals’ to all sorts of people – Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso (which amuses me given the saying itself). But Miller does this and more; she steals the story of Patroclus that was untold and makes it her own – while retaining the integrity of all the sources that came before.
Have you read The Song of Achilles, and if not, is there a reason? Does this review make you more interested? Do you think that relationships are the most important part of this story or is there something else that jumped out at you more? How do you feel about portrayals of violence in fiction?
Next week’s review will be of Room by Emma Donoghue
who said of The Song of Achilles ‘A ravishingly vivid and convincing version of one of the most legendary of love stories’