While I’m waiting for my copies of the 2020 longlist books to come in, here’s another previous winner I read recently for a little extra Women’s Prize content! I picked up Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles at the very end of February- 2012’s WP winner. I was underwhelmed by Miller’s shortlisted Circe when I read it a year and a half ago, and so had been putting off Miller’s earlier offering- I shouldn’t have!
In the novel, Patroclus narrates his life from family difficulties and a competition for Helen’s hand in marriage during his boyhood, to becoming Achilles’ constant companion and eventually participating in the Trojan War. Through Patroculs’s unwavering attention and the close romantic relationship the two share, we see Achilles grow and change from an impressive, kind child to the Greeks’ most renowned fighter- a legend, but also a proud and broken man.
“It is right to seek peace for the dead. You and I both know there is no peace for those who live after.”
The Song of Achilles is a phenomenal retelling- it’s no surprise this book has appealed to Greek myth fans and novices alike over the past several years. Prior knowledge of the Trojan War and who’s who in Greek mythology is not necessary to enjoy this story, though those already familiar with the tale and characters will likely appreciate the ways Miller links her own tale to canon material. The reason this works so well for such a varied audience is that it is not simply another Iliad– the book does not narrow its focus on Helen or the Trojan horse or any other particular element of the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans that’s been told a thousand times, though those aspects are peripherally present. Instead, Miller delivers a relationship study- this is essentially a m/m romance focused on emotion and character development, giving voice to an important man who has hitherto (at least in my reading experience) been marked as important only for his proximity to greater heroes.
“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”
On paper, in a comparison between this book and Circe, it’s hard to believe that Circe wouldn’t rank higher for me. And yet, in the very first pages of The Song of Achilles, the difference between the two- and the reason for my clear preference for this book- was obvious: Patroclus’s voice sets it head and shoulders above Miller’s more recent release. With Circe I could admire the writing and themes, enjoy the appearances of old familiar Greek faces, and look at a character I’d never considered very carefully in a new feminist light. But I found very little emotion in that book. The Song of Achilles was another matter. Patroclus is clearly a character Miller must have felt passionate about- his relationship with Achilles, a thing she must have cherished. The novel bleeds emotion from every page. The love and friendship our two heroes feel for each other is both patient and fierce, despite their peers’ disdain for it. Patroclus is compelling, propulsive, even as a tag-along character who’s not often in the thick of the action. It is impossible not to care about him.
Knowing, as I did, the traditional outcome for this storyline, I knew this was going to hurt. And it did, it did. But somehow, even knowing where the story of the Trojan War tends to go- and me, hating predictability- I found myself no less invested in watching this story play out, and no less effected in the inevitable outcome. It’s the power of the perspective, and the purpose to which Miller uses it.
“The never let you be famous and happy.”
All in all, an excellent read. I positively sped through this one and loved every minute of it. I recommend it to Greek myth fans, to queer romance fans, to character study fans, to Women’s Prize readers, and virtually everyone else. It’s a great retelling, it’s a great story in its own right, and there’s a reason it won a prestigious literary prize. This has absolutely been one of my favorite previous winner reads so far.
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I love Greek mythology, I love classic retellings, and I’m loving the journey I’m just beginning with queer romance. To be honest, after reading Circe, I didn’t entirely understand Miller’s huge popularity. Now I do, and am fully on board with reading whatever she publishes next. Perhaps I won’t love every book she writes, but I don’t want to miss out on the chance that she taps into this level of emotion again. I hope my next backlist Women’s Prize winner will impress me as much.
Have you read this book, and/or Circe? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant