Since visiting Olympia in Greece whilst on a Mediterranean cruise in June, I have been trying to get my hands on as many modern day stories of Greek mythology as I could. The first which I plumped for was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a novel which I have heard only good things about. When I saw that April also written an incredibly favourable review of the book, I felt I just had to read it. Whilst my review below is rather mixed, I did very much enjoy the novel; it just hasn’t quite reached the heights of ‘favourite’ status for me personally.
In The Song of Achilles, Miller has presented the story of Achilles and Patroclus. I knew the story from reading the wonderful Penguin Book of Mythology (edited by Jenny March) earlier in the year, but I tried to discount all knowledge and enjoy the book for what it was – a love story set amongst the heat of Ancient Greece. Rather than make her telling of the tale stolid and old fashioned, Miller has given a modern feel to the entirety of the book. In consequence, it felt as though Achilles and Patroclus’ tale was presented in an entirely fresh way. I was surprised at how easy it was to read, particularly for rather a lengthy novel. I must admit that I wasn’t quite expecting the style or tone which Miller presented, but once I got used to it, I felt that it matched the plot perfectly.
With regard to the characters, the way in which the author captured their changing emotions was skilfully done. I liked the fact that as the boys grew, so did their friendship; a friendship begun merely on the foundation that Achilles found Patroclus ‘surprising’. Whilst going through their teenage stage, their relationship was often awkward and almost unsettling, and this technique echoed the often tumultuous field of puberty rather well. The first person perspective throughout worked marvellously, and I loved being able to see the story through the eyes of one who was so involved in it. The speech between the protagonists and the minor characters too was, like the narrative, rather modern in its style. This has been criticised in a couple of the reviews I’ve read since, but on reflection, I honestly don’t think that it takes anything away from the story. Had the language used in conversations and asides been more old fashioned in their style, I feel that it may have bogged down the tale. It would also have clashed horribly with the modern feel of the narrative. Miller achieved a good blend between the modernity of the telling and language used and the antiquity of the story. She also wove in a good deal of historical detail to set the scene and ground the story. The intertwined storylines which she used also added to this.
Miller’s writing was lovely at times, and my favourite aspect of the novel was the way in which she wove in sensory detail. This was particularly effective when the senses overlapped, and descriptions like the following were introduced: walls which ‘rasped softly as I traced them with my fingertip’. Her use of music was also a lovely touch. The Song of Achilles is a novel which I struggled to put down at times, but I must say that I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second. As soon as the battle scenes came into the story, I felt that Achilles and Patroclus were suddenly fading into the background – almost as though they had become second best for the author. From here onwards, the development of their relationship was rather stifled and unrealistic. Whilst it had been well paced up until this point, it felt as though the ending was somewhat rushed and not quite developed enough as a result. To summarise then, The Song of Achilles is a wonderful take on an incredibly interesting myth, but if only Miller had carried on in the way in which she had begun, I feel that it would have been a far more enjoyable novel.