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Song of Achilles

July 8, 2012

This month’s book club choice was this year’s Orange Prize winner Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. The last Orange prizewinner we read was Bradford author Joolz Denby so we were overdue a female prize -winning author.

Song of Achilles tells the well known story of Achilles and the siege of Troy in a polished and vivid way through the eyes of Petroclus, Achilles’ long term companion and in this telling of the story, his lover. I’ll be honest and admit that I’m no Greek scholar and my knowledge of ancient Greece, its gods and their stories is sketchy to say the least, but on the upside, this meant that Song of Achilles was very new to me. The book is based on The Iliad by Homer which tells the story of Helen of Troy, sieges, ten year wars, Hector and Achilles and all that stuff of antiquity.

This book, however, uses the grand sweep of an ancient story to tell a very intimate story – the love between two men, Petroclus and Achilles. Together since boys, their love develops naturally into a full blown relationship which is very tenderly portrayed by Miller. This is a very sensual and sinuous story that draws the reader into a magic realism world where gods and men share the earth, have relationships, love and fight each other. I particularly liked how the author describes with nonchalance the sea nymph Thetis popping up everywhere (she was Achilles’ mother) with pantomime villain regularity. This book is all about the relationship which happens to be played out against an ancient military backdrop but it could have been set in modern day New York and I’m not sure it would have a difference. Miller is exceptional at painting a fantastically rendered backdrop, but what she really loves is Achilles and Petroclus.

Whilst I was drawn into this book by the engaging characterisation and beautiful writing, I felt ultimately it didn’t tell me anything new about the human condition. It was fascinating to see hubris played out on a demi god scale when Achilles refused to fight the Greeks, and only when his lover is killed by Hector does he see the folly of his behaviour. Thousands of years may separate our eras but not a lot of things change in human behaviour.

This is a brisk and exciting book that is very easy to read and urges the reader on at every page turn. But for me it felt very shallow and I struggled to find the depth and insight that nurtures with great literature. I scored it a 7 out of 10 which may seem like a relatively high score but in truth this was a very entertaining book that although it had many failings, I enjoyed it immensely, looking forward to picking it up as the story reached its inevitable tragic conclusion.

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