This book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamless...moreThis book blew me away with its depth of feeling, characterization, fast pacing and deceptively simple language. I was also astonished at how seamlessly Madeline Miller interweaves her own smaller stories into the larger backdrop of the Iliad.
I'm a huge Greek mythology nerd, have been so since childhood, so this is a book I theoretically could have written: taking something huge, like the Iliad, and adding your own small details to it. Filling in between the broad strokes of these archetypal characters. Retelling this ancient story in a modern way, while retaining a sense of its epic scale.
It accomplishes that by deliberately limiting its perspective to that of Patroclus, Achilles' beloved companion. Patroclus does not participate in the fighting until the very end; he stays with Achilles in his tent, and sometimes helps the medic, Machaon, tend the wounded. So the epic battles are largely happening in the background. What's in the foreground is Patroclus's relationship with Achilles, which is told to us in a series of vignettes covering a much broader time interval than the Iliad does, starting in their shared childhood at Achilles's father's court.
We see the action of the Iliad approaching, first from a distance, and inching closer and closer as the book progresses. The seeds of the Trojan War are planted early in this narrative, in a scene placing the child Patroclus in a room with all the other kings and heroes vying for Helen's hand, and swearing the oath with them to come to the defense of whomever Helen marries if anyone steals her from him.
There were a couple of other things I loved about that scene, besides the foreshadowing: first, Miller's ingenious sketching of all the other major Greek heroes of the Trojan War --- she gives only a few lines to each man, but those lines are so evocative that you immediately know who everyone is before she names them --- and second, her impressive rendering of Helen. Helen appears only once in the story, in this betrothal scene, and Miller makes the counterintuitive choice not to describe her.
(What ambitious writer could resist the temptation of describing the most beautiful woman who ever lived? There were lots of points in this book at which I had to stop and acknowledge Miller's cleverness as a storyteller, and the decision to keep Helen veiled was one of them.)
Anyway, once that scene is over and the war, and Patroclus' and Achilles' deaths, are looming ominously in the distance, there's a long lull in which Patroclus and Achilles become close friends, and then lovers. The scenes between them are probably the most romantic thing I've ever read. I can't do them justice in this review.
Besides their heartbreaking tenderness, these scenes also stand out for their characterization of Achilles. Reading Miller's writing of Achilles feels a lot like watching someone walk a tightrope, or successfully make a series of increasingly precarious leaps. There is so much that could go wrong trying to write a novel about someone like that, someone so much larger than life. The most obvious risk to me is making him seem arrogant, selfish, spoiled or rude. It would also be easy to make him a Mary Sue, too perfect to be believed. Somehow Miller manages to give him flaws, make those flaws believable, and also keep the character likeable without compromising the disastrous nature and grand scale of his flaws.
(Another masterful bit of foreshadowing: when Achilles is just getting to know Patroclus, and asks him what he did that his father would exile him to Achilles's father's kingdom, Patroclus answers that he killed another boy who was trying to take something from him. Patroclus wants to know what Achilles would've done in that situation, and Achilles says something like, "I don't know, no one has ever tried to take anything of mine! I imagine I'd get quite angry at them if they did." And does he ever.)
Around the same time Achilles and Patroclus are falling in love, we meet Thetis, Achilles's sea-nymph mother. Her characterization was another thing I thought was absolute genius on Miller's part; rendering a convincing, psychologically complex and realistic character who is also obviously not human is HARD, and Miller does it beautifully. This Thetis has a lot more going on than the Thetis we see in the Iliad, who acts solely as Achilles's advocate to the Olympian gods. Her interests are identical to his in the poem, but not in this novel! Here, she has certain ideas about what kind of a person she wants Achilles to be, and what kind of life she wants for him, and those ideas are not necessarily what Achilles wants for himself. He's torn between Thetis's dreams of godlike glory for him and his love of Patroclus, which brings him closer to the human side of his nature. Accordingly, this Thetis hates Patroclus and tries to chase him away from her son.
I also just like the way Thetis is described. You tend to think of the Greek gods as looking just like people, writ large, because that's how they act most of the time, but yet you also know that in their true forms they're almost unbearably fearsome. Miller's description of Thetis walks this line perfectly; she's a woman, with black hair and pale skin, but she's also scary and otherworldly. Her voice is not a woman's voice; it's a horrible rasp, a noise made by saltwater and stone, not vocal cords. Miller always uses the same sets of similes to describe her: her skin is as pale as bone, the line of her jaw is like the blade of a knife, her mouth is a jagged red rent in her face. She doesn't blend into a scene: she appears, and there is one or two people in particular she's appearing to; no one else even registers to her. You get the impression that she sees people --- mortal people --- as annoying brief intrusions on her timeless, eternal solitude. Characteristic of her are the words with which she dismisses Patroclus the first time she meets him: "You will be dead soon enough."
The last thing I want to single out in this review is Miller's handling of the relationship between Patroclus and Briseis, the girl taken prisoner by Achilles and then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon. In the Iliad, we never really see them together (they're both secondary characters who don't get a whole lot of lines in the poem, though Patroclus gets more than Briseis) and don't get the idea that there's any special bond between them until Briseis speaks at his funeral, saying she loved him. This novel, with its more intimate scope, shows us this relationship from start to finish. It also gives Briseis a personality and desires of her own, which is tough when your only role in the story is that of human MacGuffin to be fought over, and traded between other, more important, characters.
That's probably the essence of this book's genius, right there: centering the book on characters who are secondary, or even peripheral, in the Iliad and giving them enough depth to anchor a novel.
This is the book I will probably always wish I had written.(less)
The thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes...moreThe thing I liked most about this book was its conception of what a modern-day Amazon society would be like: in some ways, Lori Devoti's vision makes a lot of sense to me, but other choices she made were very surprising.
The book is set in the modern USA, in Wisconsin, but with one major difference: Amazons are real, and they've been living undetected among "mundane" humans for about 2,000 years. For the most part, they live nomadically, moving between Amazon encampments scattered across the country and only mixing with regular people to conceive children. (This setup reminded me of about equal parts The Gate to Women's Country and the Harry Potter series).
These Amazons aren't all warriors, though: they have four castes, each specializing in different things. Most Amazons are warriors, gifted with strength and speed beyond what even an elite human athlete possesses and trained in the use of sword and spear, but there are also priestesses, who can do magic using the four elements; artisans, who learn the craft of tattooing and give each Amazon the two tattoos that mark her tribal membership and augment her powers; and hearthkeepers, who are domestics. They cook, clean, take care of children and basically keep the whole society alive and functioning from day to day. They are held in contempt by the other three castes, which strikes me as very odd, and weirdly sexist.
One of their number --- the book's protagonist, Melanippe Saka --- has left that world to join mainstream society. She owns a tattoo parlor, and lives with her mother, daughter and grandmother. She left the Amazons because she was pregnant with a son: Amazon tradition dictated that she had to give up this son, but she wanted to keep him. She lost the son, and held an elder Amazon in her tribe, a priestess, responsible for that loss.
The plot of this book is a murder mystery: ten years into her voluntary exile, Melanippe starts finding the bodies of girls who've been murdered, and whose tattoos mark them as Amazons. She tries to avoid getting involved, but of course she can't (there'd be no story otherwise) and soon enough she's forced to confront her old enmities and work with the women she walked away from ten years ago to stop this new danger that threatens all of them. (less)
The Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I w...moreThe Afterword to this book says something like, "The Mill on the Floss is earnest, moral and long, and we wouldn't want it to be otherwise." Well, I was fine with the earnest and moral aspects of it, but I do think I might've liked it better had it been shorter.
I loved Eliot's faithful rendering of the strong emotions of the child Maggie Tulliver, and her spelling out detailed moral arguments between or within different characters, but I thought the book went really slowly, and seemed to ignore its own plot much of the time in favor of sketching out miscellaneous scenes from rural English life. And despite its melodrama, the story moved so slowly and haphazardly that I only sporadically felt engaged in it.
Also, Maggie seemed very much like a lot of other heroines from this period. I had started the book expecting to see a very odd, compelling character, but to me she read like an echo of Jane Eyre, Sue Bridehead, Agnes Grey, Marianne Dashwood or any other Victorian literary heroine characterized by a strong will, keenly-felt convictions, an active mind and imagination, a fine-tuned emotional sensitivity, and a childhood or young womanhood marked by poverty and loss.(less)
This is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vague...moreThis is a story that's been told over and over in American literature since the 1950s: white, middle-class couple with quasi-bohemian values and vague dreams of being artists get married, have kids and move to the suburbs, where they eventually wonder how their lives got to be so boring. Existential crises ensue, which may or may not lead to either of them doing something radical to try and bust out of the rut.
I think that story is best told by Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road. His writing is lovely and lyrical, sometimes darkly funny and sometimes heartbreaking, and he keeps the book short and fast-moving.
What's more, he doesn't fall into the pattern of so many other male tellers of this tale, who always seem to blame the wife for keeping the husband mired in comfortable mediocrity. In this version, they both decide to move there so that their kids can have a backyard to play in, but they also agree that the move will be temporary, and that they will move back to the city and resume the creative, semi-bohemian life they had been living once the kids were older. As you might guess, "temporary" becomes more or less permanent; the husband, Frank, gets a good-paying job that he initially despises but slowly comes to like (once he figures out he can be good at it), and for a time the wife, April, tries to organize an amateur theater company. (She fails: the first scene of the novel is of their awkward first performance of The Petrified Forest, in which she stars). But she also takes steps toward changing their life together: she devises, and starts to carry out, a plan for them to live abroad for a while.
Over the course of the novel, a huge gulf opens up between husband and wife. They start out fairly close, like two people sharing a joke no one else is in on (mostly at the expense of the other people in their suburb, whom they see as less educated, less hip and, above all, not cultivating the proper ironic distance between themselves and their bourgeois surroundings), but life in the separate, minimally-overlapping spheres of home and office leaves them with less in common than they had when they were living together in the city.
I also think part of the reason they drift apart is because Frank changes and April doesn't, really. She clings to the idea of returning to city life like a lifeline, while Frank comes to feel at home in his new job. He starts to feel like he's needed there, and he finds it intensely difficult to get used to the idea of quitting.
Both characters are amazingly well-drawn, and even if they were the only characters in this book, it would be enough to be interesting. But there are other characters, too, who are equally complex and interesting. There's another couple who are the closest thing Frank and April have to friends in their new neighborhood, and there's their landlady and her son, who is mentally ill and who, in the few scenes when he appears, gets some of the best lines in the book. (less)
The dust jacket calls this book a "prelude" to Morrison's earlier, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, and, having read both, I think that's a fair descri...moreThe dust jacket calls this book a "prelude" to Morrison's earlier, Pulitzer-winning novel Beloved, and, having read both, I think that's a fair description.
A Mercy is about an intersection in the lives of six characters: white colonists Rebekka and Jacob Vaark, a free African blacksmith, and the Vaarks' three slaves, Lina, Florens and Sorrow. Without giving too much away, I can say that, over the course of the novel, the working relationship between the Vaarks and their slaves (each of whom the Vaarks took in as an act of mercy --- Lina is a Native girl who with two younger boys survived an outbreak of pox that obliterated her clan; Sorrow is an orphaned shipwreck survivor; and Florens was taken in payment of a bad debt owed by a dissolute Portuguese planter) unravels.
What was most eye-opening about this novel was the contrast between race-based slavery as I knew it from Beloved (and lots of other novels, history books and slave narratives) and the slavery portrayed here. Two white characters, Willard and Scully, also work for Jacob Vaark, though he does not permit them to live on his property; they are indentured servants, both bonded more or less indefinitely. At one point Vaark has to command them to take orders from the blacksmith, who as a free craftsman outranks them. Morrison mentions a fascinating bit of historical trivia, the People's War, in which black slaves, white indentured servants and certain Native groups banded together to revolt against white landowners --- apparently it was in response to this united uprising that the first laws discriminating between white and black were set down.(less)