I chose this for my book group’s next meeting. I’d heard good things about it, and then it won the Orange Prize just as my turn to pick was falling due. As a group we always used to read the Booker winner every year, and then we had a run of disappointments, so now it’s no longer a certainty that we’ll give the Booker winner a go. I rather like the idea of making the Orange Prize winner a permanent fixture, or at least something we put into regular consideration. I’m interested in writing by women, and in reading the best of it in every given year, so the Orange should deliver on that front, right?

So what has it delivered this year? Madeline Miller is a first-time novelist with The Song of Achilles. She is a classical scholar, and uses her knowledge in the best possible way. She retells the story of Achilles, hero of Homer’s The Iliad, beginning in his youth and showing him growing into manhood and taking his prophesied role as a great hero. Her narrator is Patroclus, an exiled prince who is sent to the court of Peleus, the father of Achilles. After initial mistrust, the two become friends.

The story of Achilles has been told many times, and from many angles. Retelling these stories, in different ways and different segments, is one of the great traditions of Western literature. Miller’s intention here is to burrow down into one of the central relationships of the literary canon – that of Achilles and his dearest companion, Patroclus – and bring it to life, in the kind of psychological reality that makes sense to a contemporary reader. Although she clearly knows a lot about the world, its people, its material culture, its history, the world she shows us is minimal in its detail – close-up, domestic, familiar.

Miller finds a language that is simple and clear to tell her story, in a way that reflects the directness and clarity of her source material. It feels neither too contemporary, nor self-consciously archaic. The story is told in the first person by Patroclus himself, which gives a personal feel that the epic poems, told by a separate narrator, could not have. The voice, artless, simple, clear-sighted, truthful, is a voice out of young adult fiction: the Patroclus who begins the story as a bullied, unloved child is essentially unchanged by the end of the story. And the story that the voice tells is a love story.

Reading Homer, one of the strangest things to come to grips with for a modern reader is the way the gods step in and out, casually, all the time, and make things happen. Characters are one-dimensional: Odysseus is wily, Penelope is faithful, etc etc, but gods twist things around and mess things up. Gods make contradiction and change, they bring violence and unpredictability. Miller is careful about the way she uses her gods. They remain almost entirely unseen, with the exception of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who is a sea-nymph. Miller’s Thetis is terrifying and alien, cold and implacable. Whenever she appears, the world goes silent in reaction to the wrongness of her. Driven by dark emotions – rage, resentment, ambition – and involved in off-stage machinations we never see, she represents the terror and complexity of the world of the gods – and she’s not even one of the important ones. (There is also a late appearance by Apollo, but this could be a hallucination.)

Happily for Patroclus, Miller’s Achilles inherits none of this from his mother. He gets his personality entirely from his dad’s side: he is breathtakingly honest, because he is so beautiful and so physically gifted he’s never needed to be anything else. The young Achilles is guileless – a natural prince, even-handed and kind. He already fights better than anyone else in the world, although he has never been trained. His gift is innate, from the gods, requiring no practice – although he does a little practice, alone. Miller’s simple prose works well as she conjures their steps toward friendship, the first stirrings of sexual awakening, and the awkwardness as they admit their desire for one another and become lovers. This part of the story feels fairly contemporary – a boy coming to homosexual awareness in a world which sneers at homosexuality. In this world, it is something boys grow out of, or something lords and kings do on the side. It is not a legitimate choice adults make. That Achilles and Patroclus do manage to make a life together is something only made possible by Achilles’ exceptionalism. He is the greatest warrior who ever lived, and so as long as he’s discreet, he can do what he likes.

While the novel works rather sweetly  as a teen romance, things start to get ropey when we hit the Trojan war. Characters that made sense until  now start making rather less sense, because they’re not in action invented by Miller. The meshing of Miller’s pure-hearted Achilles with all the Homer-era worry about fame and honour and immortal reputation feels awkward. We’re building up to the wrath of Achilles, of course, but when his wrath comes it feels out of character. His behaviour around Briseis (fleshed out rather nicely here) doesn’t quite make sense, and when he lets Patroclus go and fight for him, that doesn’t make ANY sense. But it has to happen, because it’s in the poem.

The problem is, these aren’t modern characters. Turning Achilles into a young gay romantic hero gives him an interesting  new dimension, but it also robs him of the martial context that makes his actions make sense. Achilles’ own investment in his own legend is something that arrives late in the book and never feels properly integrated, and yet it drives all the decisions he makes. Miller’s war scenes are good, but she steers clear of too much combat: Patroclus does not fight, finding a role in the medical tent instead (does that make him the Hawkeye of the Trojan War?), and creates a little family of virginal slave girls, led by Briseis, who have been rescued from becoming war prizes. Miller keeps the brutality of the war at a distance: rape happens off-stage, and Achilles retains his nobility as he slaughters his way through every day. The ugly business of fighting wars and running armies is kept at a remove; neither Achilles or Patroclus is interested in or capable of the whole gamut of unpleasantness involved in what they’re doing, from the politicking and scheming involved in managing the fractious kings and their armies, to the sadism of armies on the loose. All these negative qualities are parcelled up into Achilles’ son, the thoroughly unpleasant Pyrrhus – who is not, of course, Miller’s creation, but his cold-hearted sadism is contrasted strongly with Achilles’ purity of spirit.

For me, the spirit of teen romance which lurks at the heart of this novel sits a little uncomfortably with Homer’s original. But nonetheless, this is a strong and accomplished debut.

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