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.

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