So I’m trying out a new format for reviews, in keeping with the way I actually read. Y’all will have to let me know what you think. I am not wedded to this. It’s just something I’m trying.
The beginning: Patroclus (the beloved of Achilles, you’ll remember) tells the story of his early life, how he is exiled from his home and send to live in Phthia (which is in Thessaly, ugh), where he meets Achilles. They soon become inseparable friends, for reasons Miller isn’t great at making clear, and after they hit puberty they become lovers. It’s all very sweet and PG-rated (PG-13 maybe), with kisses being trailed down stomachs, but you know where things are going from here.
The major failure of this section of the book, to my mind, is that Achilles needs to be set up to be angrier sooner. When you know the story of the Iliad, and you know the story is heading in the direction of the wrath of Achilles giving rise to woes unnumbered, Achilles has to be angry and prideful fast. And in this he’s not. He’s very innocent in a lot of ways, which — it is possible to mix implacability and innocence in the correct proportions, but it’s hard to get right. I don’t think Madeleine Miller is succeeding.
(Mary Renault did though when she wrote about Alexander and y’all should read Fire from Heaven and you should especially read The Persian Boy okay that’s all about Mary Renault sorry but she is just so awesome the end)
The end: Around the start of the Trojan War, I peeked at the end to see how Madeleine Miller was going to continue the story after Patroclus dies. And oh dear, it seems Patroclus’s spirit is wandering the world unburied, observing everything that’s going down. I initially felt like this was a cheat, but, no, actually, maybe it’s not. If Madeleine Miller does an adequate job of setting up that piece of the Greek belief system before the end of the book, then I will accept this as a clever way of telling a story in which your narrator dies in the middle.
The whole: I was right. The angry Achilles set-up needed to happen sooner. He’s too innocent for the sudden intense anger that comes up when Agamemnon takes back Briseis. It helps a little, but not enough, that Patroclus finds it jarring also.
If you decide to retell one of the greatest and most enduring stories in all of Western history, you better have a compelling — more importantly, a new — reason to do it. The Song of Achilles is best when Miller plays around at the fringes of the Iliad story, and weakest when she’s retreading familiar ground. Unfortunately she does the latter more often than the former: this is a very, very straight retelling of the stories. A notable exception is the character of Briseis and the friendship she develops with Patroclus, and the sort of den mother position she assumes among the women of the camp. Thetis, Achilles’s sea-nymph mother, is also a good part of the story, and virtually the only part of it that feels like Homer.
More often, though, Miller is painstakingly walking us through the familiar Homer story, and she has a disastrous tendency to smooth out the fierce, destined quality that’s so crucial to the Iliad. (To the Greeks generally, I guess.) You can see she knows it should be there, but she doesn’t manage to convey it, maybe because she’s too focused on the angelically trouble-free love between Achilles and Patroclus. It would have been much more interesting — since she’s focusing on that relationship — if the conflicts that arise at the end between Achilles and Patroclus had always been there. If Patroclus’s love for Achilles had become tinged with fear and weariness, that would have been better, I think. It would have been a good parallel for the way the Greeks began to feel about the Trojan War.
I feel I have reined in my feelings admirably while writing this review, by the way. My notes for the post say, “all feelings feelings feelings with this book and NOT ENOUGH MURDER AND SODOMY why is all this missish timidity WHERE ARE ALL THE MURDERINGS?”
But seriously. Too many feelings. Not enough murderings.