Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Greece in the age of heroes.  Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles.  Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shames prince, and as they grow in to young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.  But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny.  Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.

I read Orange Prize winner The Song of Achilles as part the book club I attend, Bookplate, and I couldn’t wait to discuss it with the rest of the group when I finished it.  I was absolutely captivated by it!

I was already very familiar with some parts of the story, having been a big reader of Greek myths and legends when I was little, so I already knew how the drama would play out (in fact, I was a bit surprised that there were some in the book club who didn’t) but having this ‘spoiler’ information certainly didn’t spoil the book for me.  A lot of the story was new to me anyway, as Miller spends much time adding detail to the story of Patroclus, who is only a very minor character in the Iliad.

Miller was intrigued by the idea that the death of Patroclus causes the legendary ‘Rage of Achilles’ so wanted to explore the bond between the characters, and how that had come to be.  I think she does this with a fantastic eye for detail and a great sensitivity to creating realistic and believable characters but also to retaining the sensibilities of the original Greek myths.  In this, I think The Song of Achilles is a triumph; while Patroclus and Achilles seem three-dimensional, reactive and proactive, it is perfectly plausible within the world of the story, for a goddess or a centaur to appear.  The human characters are not overawed and accept these celestial interventions as a natural part of life, and this felt absolutely right to me.

Stylistically too, I think that Miller has capture the tone of the Iliad; she mixes delicate, subtle description with fairly short sentences and quite a lot of first-person-pronouns.  This can be a little repetitive but works well in terms of setting a tone.  I loved the way in which she describes characters and landscapes too.  Her descriptions of Thetis particularly are striking in their subtlety – Thetis’ appearance is not clearly described, but rather the way in which she speaks, like the grinding of the rocks on the sea bed. So evocative!

The only criticism I had of this book was that I expected it to feel more literary in style; I almost wanted it to be ‘harder’.  On reflection, I think it’s very impressive that Miller produced such a well-written book about this topic without creating something ‘hard’ and I’m sure this will have increased its readership.  I’d highly recommend this to anyone who fancies something romantic yet Classical.

Kate Neilan