Book review: The Song of Achilles

Reading The Song of Achilles is like sitting on soft sands under a warm sun, a cool breeze curling across your skin. All the while, you’re staring at a storm on the horizon. Dark clouds, sheets of rain and violent crashes of lightening are on their way to you. So, do you enjoy the here and now? Bask in the sun and play in the waves? Or do you sit in dread, waiting for the storm to arrive?

It’s this element of despair and sad understanding that plagues – and enhances – the story’s most beautiful passages. Each sentence makes me want to weep with the futility of it all: you cannot read this story and not know how it ends.

So, take my advice and do NOT read Achilles on a Sunday evening when you’re already failing to cope with the Sunday blues. I think I was on the verge of an anxiety attack when I read the last 150 pages. I read them in some heightened, emotional blur, knowing the storm was about to hit and my warm, beachy contentment was about to come to an abrupt end.

“I have heard that men who live by a waterfall cease to hear it – in such a way did I learn to live beside the rushing torrent of his doom.”

Handsome, brave Achilles with his flickering feet and golden hair might be the sought-after hero, but I could only feel for Patroclus. Achilles felt too distant, like a beautiful urn etched with his story. From my small knowledge of Greek mythology, Achilles has never been a favourite of mine (I mean, I did a project on the Greek gods when I was about 11, so my pre-teen research is a valid foundation for adult opinions, right). I struggled to warm to him throughout the novel, though I thought he redeemed himself slightly towards the end.

Side note: While I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder how Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship is portrayed in other retellings. I started to have a look and then got wholly distracted by the film, Troy. I haven’t seen it so I did a quick google for the cast. Brad Pitt as Achilles – are you kidding me! I’m not Achilles’ biggest fan, but he deserves better than that!

Patroclus, however. Oh Patroclus. I have no words for his beautiful, kind, measured personality. His constant battle to love Achilles and do the right thing. His painfully conscientious nature and selfless act of love. Madeline Miller has created one of the most beautiful characters in fiction with her portrayal of Patroclus. It was only through him that I could feel some sort of pity for Achilles.

I adored Miller’s take on their relationship. Watching them struggle with their feelings and learn how to be together was both magical and heartbreaking. Despite being set in Ancient Greece, so many of the challenges and attitudes towards the men seem similar – if not the same – as today. It’s made me realise I need to broaden the characters I read about, and look for books that include gay relationships.

This is an epic myth; an epic retelling; an epic love story. It broke my heart from the first chapter and continued to dance across the pieces for the remaining 32.

4 stars


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