Patrick's Reviews > The Song of Achilles

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
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May 15, 12

Read from May 02 to 04, 2012

One interesting thing about the shortlist for the Orange Prize is that (unlike the other big British literary prize, the Booker) it isn’t only open to literary fiction; in fact, the rules specifically state that ‘we encourage publishers to submit books from all genres’, the only other specific criteria being the date of publication and the gender of the author. (It must also be the best ladybook of the year, of course, but you probably knew that part already.)

But what’s odd about this is that despite its open-door policy towards genre, it continues to attract a very particular kind of genre fiction: one would hardly expect to see much in the way of science fiction, horror or fantasy writing here. Yet ‘The Song of Achilles’ is definitely genre fiction. What would you call it? Historical Fiction, I suppose, but Historical Romance would probably be more accurate. I don’t mean to sound like I’m down on this from the outset, but the whole point of this book is that it sets out to tell a familiar story in a way which draws heavily on all kinds of pre-existing novelistic techniques which will largely meet and maybe even exceed the expectations of its readership. Okay, you could say that literary fiction does the same in similar ways, but this does it a lot. Basically, if you like a good Historical Romance, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

The story is defined by the relationship between Achilles and his friend Patroclus, which is one I did not know well; apparently there is some debate as to whether the two were lovers or not, but Miller comes down pretty unequivocally on the former side. It’s written from Patroclus' point of view, which seems like a good idea at first until it becomes apparent that so attached is he to Achilles that it becomes impossible to define either against anything else. It’s as though Patroclus only exist to add colour to the legend of a greater man – in fact, I’m pretty sure he admits this at some point – and so the real problem is that Patroclus is of precious little interest himself. One might even go so far to say that the author becomes fascinated by Achilles while being somewhat bored by the lingering Patroclus. After a while, his endless worshipful fawning becomes tiresome, and I got a little sick of seeing poor Patroclus always left behind to wring his hands while Achilles leaves a stream of Trojan corpses in his wake. (view spoiler)

To Patroclus, Achilles is literally the most beautiful man who ever lived. Which is fine if you accept that as coming from his point of view, but it’s harder to accept when the writing which expresses this is just the most gooey, romantic mush. Because the story is one of the Classics, everything must take on a glossy sheen of wonder: whether skin be glowing bronze in the sun or blood be spouting artfully across the battlefield, everything is either terribly beautiful or beautifully terrible. Much of it betrays sloppy thinking and sloppier editing: ‘His skin was the colour of just-pressed olive oil’ – what, green?

The author clearly knows her Classics well, but the weight of the myths hangs too heavy around this book. If there’s anything nice I can say about it, it’s that at least the plot kept me turning the pages all the way till the end. But then this is a great story any way you tell it – it’s just that in this case, the writing leans too heavily on the crutch of its own generic expectations.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Claire Totally agree!


message 2: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Turner I agree except, I stopped reading the book at about p. 50 as I dislike the romance genre.
I see Miller can write - in fact, when I began the book, I was excited by her writing - but then the power of the words was used to magnify the gushy romantic longings - and in the process, from my point of view, create unreal stereotypical feelings; like fairy-floss - sugary and empty. You see, I don’t like the romance genre.

The only reason I’m commenting is because this is disappointing. If it’d been a usual romance, I would not have even noticed, nor cared. But Miller was dealing with the Iliad. We all know its main characters and its stories. We know its mythical power. What a pity, from my point of view. But from those who have rated the book so highly, it is a great success!!


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