Thursday 10 January 2013

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Oh, how I wish I had studied the classics.  The tales of the Greek Gods are filled with violence, jealousy, superstition, romance and sex.  What more does one need for a good story?  To start with, a command of this indecipherable language would be helpful.  Not Greek necessarily, but the poetry and structure in which The Iliad and The Odyssey were written have left them out of the reach of typical readers like myself, who decided a degree in computer science would be a far more useful.

One would think these stories, having been told for thousands of years, do not need to be told again.  Ah, but you would be wrong.  The Iliad weighs in at a mere 482 pages but the text can be somewhat (dare I say it?) incomprehensible to those mere mortals amongst us.   Put the same stories in the talented hands of Madeline Miller, these heroes and their tales of war come alive with their faults and flaws, love and lust, courage and foolishness.

The Song of Achilles provides a beautiful account of the alleged love story and sexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles while at the same time painting a brutal scene of the war and conflict that dominated their world.  And all in a language that I can read, enjoy and understand rather effortlessly.  The homosexual relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was never explicit in the Iliad and the nature of the word love can mean many different things:  love for a child, love for a friend, love for a lover, the act of loving, etc. But there is no such ambiguity in Miller's novel.  Miller embraces whole heartily the sexual nature of their relationship.  But there is more to this story than the sex.  The violence of the war, the disregard for the value of life, the egotistical drive to be the best:  the themes dominate the Greek myths and Miller makes it all fascinating as well as accessible.

I found the novel intense and engaging (read "I couldn't put the bloody book down").  The tender love between the lovers developed over decades.  The grief ravaged me and I cried when Patroclus died and Achilles wept inconsolably.  I felt his rage and commitment to revenge.  I don't doubt for one second, after reading this novel, that Achilles loved Patroclus with every fibre of his being, in every way possible.  The summoning of such anger would be difficult to imagine without the existence of such love. 

This wins the honour of being in my Top 10 2012 Reads and it gets 5 out of 5 stars from me.  If you haven't read it, do so.  Now!

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