I knew the broad outline of Achilles’ legend, but not the details, so I was able to be surprised and thrilled as the story developed. However, readers who do know the story will no doubt find plenty to enjoy too. The key to any retelling of a myth is how the writer chooses to tell their version of the story, and Miller’s is fresh and original.
The language she uses is heady and poetic, capturing the imagination of the reader through her vivid descriptions. Her Ancient Greece is a world of majesty and opulence, but one that’s corroded through the twin cruelties of tradition and duty. Greatness comes at the cost of freedom, with one’s path in life already dictated by the gods.
Miller’s strength in this novel is her characterisation. Even the most minor character is given range and depth, their role in the story treated as important, however small. But none of it would work if the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus didn’t totally convince, and it does. Miller expertly gets across not just why these two people want each other but need each other, and how they both grow and change as a result of it. The reader roots for them even as it becomes clear as the book goes on that they may be star-crossed lovers after all.
More than anything else, Miller is trying to say something with The Song of Achilles. It’s about the choice between love and duty, the struggle to stay true to yourself in a world that’s against you, and the destructive nature of heroism.
The Song of Achilles won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012, and it was well-deserved. It’s a masterpiece, captivating and heartbreaking in equal measure. Miller has talked in interviews about how her interest in the legend of Achilles and Patroclus began when she was a child, and the book reads like a culmination of a life’s work. Fortunately, it was only her first book – she’s since written another novel, Circe, and is working on her third, based on the story of Persephone. As someone who’s always been interested in Greek myths, I can’t wait.
Review by Charlie Alcock