Thursday, 14 June 2012

Book review: The Song Of Achilles

Last week's Orange Prize winner, The Song Of Achilles by debut author Madeline Miller, is one of the most beautiful and captivating novels that I have ever read.  Based on The Iliad, the book rewrites the action of the Trojan War through the eyes of Achilles' companion (and, in this retelling, lover) Patroclus.  Sent to Phthia in exile as a child, Patroclus is chosen as companion by the Prince of Phthia, Achilles, and taught alongside him until, at the age of seventeen, they are both summoned by Agamemnon to fight against Troy. 
Miller has a remarkable knack of making these Ancient Greek tales - told so many times before - shimmer with life and vitality.  The characters of Achilles and Patroclus are vividly realised; Achilles through his friend's eyes is "like a flame himself.  He glittered, drew eyes.  There was a glamour to him, even on waking, with his hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep."  A golden haired beauty, he entrances the reader as much as he does Patroclus.  The narrator is harder to conjure an image of; we catch only glimpses of him in a bronze mirror or in the reactions of other characters, yet we know his thoughts and feelings intimately. 

It is when the two boys reach puberty that their friendship blossoms into something else and, despite the best efforts of Achilles' goddess mother, Thetis, they remain together as companions and lovers during their education and, later, their journey to war.  This central romance is utterly beguiling; I haven't rooted for a fictional couple this much for a long time.  I think maybe Brokeback Mountain was the last?  Which is also the last time I was left so heartbroken by a piece of art.  Clearly tragic gay love stories are what ring my bell.
With seventy pages to go, I did something very strange, something I have never done before.  Unable to bear the thought of finishing the book and leaving the characters, I stopped reading, turned back to the beginning and started again.  All in one sitting, 352 pages, until midnight.  It rewards reading like this, in one gulp, if you can find the time.  I became so immersed in the book that I read the last fifty pages through heaving, gulping sobs.

The Song Of Achilles is both a beautiful romance and a violent war story: a blood-soaked, sun-drenched tale.  I intend to buy a copy for everyone I know and force them to read it.

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