Review: ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

It’s been awarded to the eyeballs, so ‘The Song of Achilles’ has been on my reading list for a long time, and what a song it has to sing.

The first few chapters are dizzying; literally every Greek hero gets a mention, from Odysseus to Menelaus to Ajax, almost all of the legends are pushed into the same room, which makes the choice to follow pathetic Patroclus puzzling at the outset. Weedy and a disappointment to his heritage, the young boy seems like he’d be a weak protagonist – by the end, this presumption is proved so spectacularly wrong it’s embarrassing.

The melody of Achilles’ song is his love for Patroclus, angering his sea nymph mother and causing controversy elsewhere, but ultimately showing a love that defies convention and boundaries. Knowing that their love moves to the slow battlefield of Troy, my mind leapt to the obvious and correct conclusion as to the source of the infamous Achilles’ heel, but that didn’t reduce the tragedy or wonder at the journey the two men embarked upon.

Patroclus may be almost an effeminate writer, denying the stereotypical manly pursuits in favour of love and academia, but eventually you warm to his. Miller’s persistence in giving Patroclus a more eloquent writing style pays off, creating a character who genuinely believes in what he feels, rather than someone being swept away in the heat of a summer romance.

Miller is also talented in splitting characters in two, making them one thing and another simultaneously – take a man who wants to be in love but also wants to be on Olympus. Achilles is brutal and generous, heroic and humble, and so on. But his dualities never feel clashing; they are two sides of the same coin, and it is wholly believable that this man is struggling with his potential identity as a God. This is done with others such as Menelaus and Odysseus, whose love for Penelope shines through at opportune moments, but Miller doesn’t shy away from creating outright personalities instead of these mixtures. Take Thetis, the sea nymph who inspires her son Achilles to a greatness beyond human means; she’s an out and out antagonist, and her presence is crafted so that we feel Patroclus’ fear and loathing whenever she is near, albeit her final act in the novel buys her a slim chance of redemption for the readers.

It’s difficult to go into plot without spoiling everything, although readers of Plato and ‘The Iliad’ will no doubt have an idea as to Patroclus’ importance and the outcome of the Trojan war as a whole. ‘The Song of Achilles’ is bloody and beautiful, and left me wanting more but being denied by the legends of Greece. Miller’s debut is well worth the investment, and something that will haunt readers beyond the final pages.

Review: ‘Matilda’ @ Cambridge Theatre

I’m a massive Roald Dahl fan, and finally managed to go and see the musical version of ‘Matilda’ this week, and it was definitely worth the wait.

I’m always mildly nervous about child actors, and this was a stage filled with them – yet my nerves could not have been more wrong. These were kids so talented it made me feel slightly ashamed of myself, their voices were well trained and they were absolute comic gems in places. Matilda (Violet Tucker) was superb, and her telling of the Acrobat and Escapologist story was absolutely entrancing – in fact I’d go as far as to say this was one of my favourite bits of the show. It’s astounding to think this is Violet Tucker’s professional debut, and a credit to her incredibly talent.

As always, favourite characters are soon picked out, and I had three this time, and I’m lightly concerned about my choices – Mr and Mrs Wormwood (Kay Murphy) and Ms Trunchbull were no doubt my highlights! Craige Els was a hilarious Ms Trunchbull, playing the evil headmistress with such comedic contempt that you celebrated her rises and falls without choice – you were thrown about by the pigtails into a world of ridiculous maggoty vengeance, because if it’s not right you have to make it right! Trunchbull’s solo was magnificent, unfortunate when you’re supposed to be rooting against her!

The Wormwoods, on the other hand, were so trashy it was brilliant – they were stereotypes gone crazy! Mr Wormwood’s (James Clyde) solo is a treat that you must make sure you return to your seats for during the interval, it reeks of Tim Minchin’s sardonic style and deliciously satirical critique of society’s priorities, as do many of the other musical numbers.

Speaking of which, shortly after the interval there’s a song performed on swings, ‘When I Grow Up’, and again it was a clear favourite of mine, speaking to the adults and children in the audience equally – in particular, I loved that the adults and children were linked in the performance, because let’s face it, we never truly feel like we’ve grown up until life’s passed us by!

And at the hear of it all, the message that life is more important than petty feuds, bullies and television is one that is carried throughout this – yes, books might be Matilda’s source of adventure, but friends and family are the wonder of the world, and it’s these things that allow Matilda to live her happily ever after at long last.

Fans of Roald Dahl and newbies to his wonderful world alike will enjoy this musical, and best of all the theatre’s cheaper seats in the Upper Circle allow spectacular viewing, so everyone can afford to invest in the magical world of ‘Matilda’.

Review: “The Shock of the Fall” by Nathan Filer

Another recommendation, but unlike ‘Empire of the Sun’, I practically devoured ‘The Shock of the Fall’.

Dealing with the untimely death of his brother, Matthew Holmes works through guilt, despair and pain in this haunting novel. The pace is unrelenting, and as such it’s difficult to find a suitable place to stop – there are so many questions, and even the answers bring more until your head, much like Matthew’s, is swirling in an unstoppable vortex.

I wasn’t overly impressed with the opening, until I went back to it: it’s one of those ones where you need to understand the context of the novel, and the tone of Matthew’s illness, in order to appreciate the hurried and clumsy opening. It’s the perfect representation of how Matthew starts his writing, and the tone continues throughout so that you feel his anguish with him, and are desperate to crawl inside the pages and help him.

Filer’s career as a mental health nurse is blindingly clear through the sentimental and stark details in his novel. The setting it at once familiar and discomforting, highlighting the cyclical nature of Matthew’s illness, and how difficult it is to recover when memories repress you physically and mentally.

Without giving more away, this is a stunning debut from Filer, and provides the real shock of the fall into a novel that strips back what we tend to hide, and exposes a wound that is initially horrifying, but heals to show the potential of forgiveness and peace.

Review: ‘Empire of the Sun’ by J.G. Ballard

I have to confess I didn’t know much about the Japanese and Chinese involvement in World War Two at all prior to reading ‘Empire of the Sun’, and that has to be its main appeal: its detailed insight into life in the East during this horrific period of history. That is, perhaps, as far as my interest goes in this book, as in terms of a story I found it hardgoing and dry to read.

Part of that is because of the level of detail; minute geographical points about the airfields and Jim’s routes to and from Amherst Avenue as he rolls around Shanghai were complex and fairly mind-boggling. That might just be my inability to keep up, but everything got very baffling very quickly. For instance, I could have sworn that they travelled for nearly a month to reach Lunghua Airfield Prison, yet it seemed that Jim could just nip back and forth between it and Shanghai, which didn’t seem plausible after everything we’d been told.

It was a repetitive narrative style as well. It felt like Jim’s name would be eternally etched on my memory after being on every second line, a pronoun nowhere to be seen. Likewise with Basie and Dr Ransome; I dreaded seeing them turn up. Part of me thinks the repetitive structure could quite easily represent the mundane nature of war; waiting around for death or further transport, prisoners didn’t have a thrilling life, and it was quite interesting to see that Lunghua pretty much set up a schooling system to combat this. So maybe it’s understandable, but you have to have a lot of patience with this book.

I also felt that there were subtle nuances meant in character’s actions, but these were sometimes indecipherable. Dr Ransome, in particular, was something of an irritating enigma; I could get that Basie was using people left, right and centre, but the implications of Random being corrupt were so nuanced I struggled to see the wood for the trees. It was the same with some of the other adult characters, and even Jim at times when it was unclear whether he accepted or misunderstood his role as camp skivvy.

The most interesting bit, without being flippant, was after the ending. J.G. Ballard’s insights into the war were fascinating, and one comment sparked a particular debate between a friend and I: Ballard claimed the Allies will always be weak for being apologetic for their actions in the war, as no matter what they were combatting, they still felt evil. It was something I’d not considered, but the feeling of guilt perhaps does run a lot of our history, and it was interesting to consider which elements of the war are told not through fact, but through emotion.

Having had this recommended to me, I wouldn’t pass it on to anyone else; although interesting from a historical perspective, as a novel it lacks compelling characters and incidences, and anything that might well be interesting is muddled in the mire.

5 Reasons to Read ‘Tsunami Kids’

The breathtaking story of the Forkan family after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, their story from survival to success is something everyone should experience, and here’s just five reasons why…

1) They’re real people – there’s nothing show-y or conceited about the Forkans, they’ve worked damn hard to get where they are.

2) There’s no understanding tragedy until you’re told its real life implications – films like ‘The Impossible’ try in spectacular style, but the real definition of tragedy comes from the normal and everyday being shattered in this book.

3) Memorials count – the parents who lost their lives in this devastating event deserve to be remembered, as do those the boys experience along their journey for their inspiration, courage and determination.

4) An indictment of education – an unusual choice on my own part, but sometimes it’s worth remembering that education is not what you learn in the classroom, it’s the experiences that shape you into the wonderful personality you are.

5) Give back – not only do 10% of the profits of the book go to helping the boys achieve their dream of building a children’s home in India, but it’s worthwhile having a look (if not investing) in the product that’s going to earn them this dream, and invest in their charity adventure.

Find out more about the boys’ endeavours on their website here, and find the book on Amazon and other retailers.

UPDATE: Just bought a pair of these beauties – looking good and supporting the brothers’ cause, win win situation!

Review: ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ by Khaled Hosseini

Where to begin? I adored ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, ‘Kite Runner’ broke my heart, and now there’s ‘And the Mountains Echoed’. Whilst it definitively cannot be called my favourite of Hosseini’s trio, it’s beautiful in its own way and certainly has its emotionally crippling moments…

…until the end, that is. I need to get it out of the way, and begin at the end, which was in all honesty an anticlimactic disappointment. I accepted that, being a Hosseini book, happily ever after couldn’t be a legitimate possibility, but the mundane details of the final chapter were too much to bear. I didn’t need Pari and Abdullah to run into one another’s arms basked in the glow of sunset, but some form of closure was needed on their relationship, and instead it felt very hollow in its lack of intimacy.

Likewise, I felt disappointed in Markos and Idris’ stories – they were characters I felt bonded to in their fighting-underdog mannerisms, and yet they were just left without any form of reconciliation with the world around them, or with the main storyline. It was a shame for such compelling characters to be left dangling without resolution after building the foundations of their lives for the reader.

But again, remember the end is where I began. The rest of this book made me want to cry at the sheer beauty of it. In all honesty, the beginning was my favourite bit – the allegory of the div (a sort of monster) taking a child from a family and the father’s struggle to get him back and be freed of guilt was absolutely haunting, but simultaneously so beautiful I wanted to cry. Follow this up with the story of Pari and Abdullah and you’re a wreck before you even reach the third chapter. It’s something Hosseini is masterful at, crafting devastatingly beautiful familial relationships. Indeed, Pari’s future relationship with her adoptive mother, Nila, is crushing in its failure to launch and the consequences of this. Parwana and Masooma’s unspoken sibling rivalry is the final in the triad of loving yet emotionally burdened relationships, again a haunting indictment of the life-altering power of sibling relationships.

It’s a different take on his earlier writing, where we follow one story through to its completion, and in some ways this works; seeing a tangle of lives altered by intertwining circumstances reminds us how everything has far-reaching and potentially damaging consequences (just think about Iqbal’s fate). In some ways, though, it doesn’t, but I suppose this depends entirely on your own personality – are you someone who prefers to be an onlooker in a segment of life, or wants to see it through to completion? I suppose, in a sense, this means there’s something for every type of reader, and regardless of your investment, there is (as with any Hosseini book) the promise of an intense emotional impact after reading, and the mountains echo their message across its readership for longer than it takes to read the book.