An alternative take on The Iliad
Please note that this review may contain some spoilers, if you can call it that when the story has been around for thousands of years.
It’s hard to believe that this book has now been out for over a decade, and that it’s taken me so long to get round to reading it. I remember there being a lot of hype about it a couple of years ago (although given pandemic time that was probably actually five or so years ago!), and it got rave reviews wherever I read about it. Was there a single book blog or Booktube channel that didn’t mention it? I’m, as usual, incredibly behind the trends. But perhaps that is a good thing in this case, giving me a bit of distance from other people’s opinions of the book and its dazzling glory.
One of the reasons it took me so long to read this book is ironically because it is so popular. These days I do almost all of my reading in e-book form through my local library’s app. As soon as I saw this book in their selection I put a reserve on, but I had to wait literally months (maybe even as many as six?) before it would be available. In the meantime, I satisfied myself with Miller’s 2018 novel, Circe. I absolutely loved that book, and it firmly raised my already high expectations of The Song of Achilles. When the latter became available a few weeks earlier than predicted, I was super excited to sink my teeth into it.
So, were my expectations met? Yes and no. The story was essentially familiar to me, as I studied The Iliad in school, and I love how Miller has retold it. She has a fantastic skill for making characters distant in time and experience feel relatable, and human (even when they aren’t strictly human…). Narrated by Patroclus, the often unlikeable Achilles, famed throughout history for his implacable temper, becomes unexpectedly understandable. In place of an archetype for masculine anger he becomes a real person, whose pressures and fears, though totally removed from those any of us are likely to experience, become relatable – we finally ‘get’ him. Patroclus himself is no longer a footnote, but now a fully-formed human, with a history, motivations, and strengths. I was intrigued to see how the story would work once Patroclus was killed, and I think Miller handles this really well – I actually had a little jolt of excitement when I realised how she’d worked that problem out!
One of the strengths of Miller’s writing is that she treats all her characters equally; they are all graced with understandable motivations – even when their actions are utterly abhorrent, they fit the logic of their characters, and we can see why they thought they were doing the right thing. Even the villains in Miller’s books are fully fleshed out – none rely on stereotypes or act purely to further the plot. Another highlight of the novel is how Miller manages to give space and understanding to her female characters. The story of The Iliad, despite being motivated by a woman – Helen of Troy – is dominated by men, their emotions and their ideals. It is simplistic to say that Homeric poems have nothing to say about gender, but it is fair to suggest that it is not the central interest. But even in this novel about the relationship between two men, Miller crafts some truly rounded female characters, who are treated with all the depth of their male counterparts.
I do however think the book suffers slightly by comparison with Circe. I think Circe just takes that exploration of the female experience a little further, and I find this more interesting – it is a road less travelled, and therefore more intriguing. It answers more of a need. There is also a sense of strangeness and a surreal tone to Circe that I find really fascinating. We get a little of this in the character of Thetis, Achilles’ Nereid mother, but the story is for the most part rooted in the human world, with fleeting glimpses of that of the gods. Circe is almost the total opposite, set in the weird reality of the gods and demi-gods, with brief intrusions by humankind. I really enjoyed the sense of mystery, and for want of a better word weirdness that this brought to the novel, so was a little sad to find so much less of it in The Song of Achilles. But that’s the nature of the stories and their settings, so it was to be expected.
Achilles and Patroclus are one of the great unspoken love stories of fiction (history?), as important in their way as Romeo and Juliet. So telling their story was always going to be difficult. To start off with it is a bit of a ‘will they, won’t they’ tale, but unlike many of these narratives, Miller’s becomes more interesting once they get together – it isn’t just about anticipation. However there are times when things become a little bit saccharine – at the end in particular. Miller spent ten years writing the book, and I sometimes can’t help but recall another author who spent years crafting a romance novel based on an existing story: Stephanie Meyer. There are moments when Miller’s story feels a bit ‘fanfic’. On the internet, stories of men loving men are often dominated by women writing about their favourite ‘ship’, and The Song of Achilles does have echoes of this. Achilles and Patroclus might even be the mother of all ships. Not that this is really a criticism – I think fanfiction is a fascinating new form of literature, often derided purely for being written by women and girls. I’ve read (and in my youth written!) far too much of it to take a high horse on this matter. I note this more to clarify one of the differences between Achilles and Circe – the former feels a bit less risky in some ways. For all its novelty, it is essentially a fairly straightforward love story, with an earned but not unexpected conclusion.
As for my own conclusion, Miller’s debut novel was definitely worth seeking out even so many years after everyone else had moved on. It is a sweet, empathetic, and imaginative re-telling of an old tale – a rewarding read regardless of your existing interest in ancient Greek myth or Homeric verse. But I’m also excited by the trajectory Miller seems to be on – moving from the relatively familiar territory of The Song of Achilles, to the altogether more enigmatic world of Circe. I’m left hoping for more, and I certainly won’t wait a decade before reading whatever she writes next!
Which of Miller’s books do you prefer: The Song of Achilles or Circe? Ultimately I really liked both of them, and found them very hard to put down! But if I really had to choose, it’d be the mysterious and unpredictable world of Circe for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts on either or both novels, in their own right and in comparison, so please do share in the comments!
[…] This book received such rave reviews that it was on my library reserve list for months waiting for everyone else to finish it. However it was worth the wait, and I really enjoyed it. I wrote a fuller review as part of The Reading List series, and you can find it here: The Reading List, The Song of Achilles, Madeleine Miller. […]