Ancient history has always fascinated me, particularly relationships to the Gods. In Greek mythology the Gods were definitely the interfering type, not satisfied with watching the mortal world they often chose sides in wars and tried to swing things in their favour, or had brief romances with warriors or beautiful women that caught their eye. If you spurned them then things went south for you pretty quickly. It didn’t matter who you were.
It was this that made we want to read The Song of Achilles in the first place, Madeline Miller’s retelling of the skilled fighter born of a sea nymph and a king, and his path to greatness. It’s a familiar story but in Miller’s novel Patroclus and Achilles are not just friends but lovers. Whether they were or not has been the topic of hot debate.
Patroclus is a disappointment to his father from almost the moment he was born. He isn’t the son he hoped for, sensitive instead of strong. Other boys sense this and despite being a prince, Patroclus is often ridiculed. When one bully tries to claim Patroclus’ die he hits out, accidentally killing the boy. To avoid execution, he is exiled to Phthia the land ruled by Achilles father, and the two boys quickly develop a friendship that deepens into something more as they grow into men.
Despite wanting to love this book I found that I couldn’t. For me it was largely down to characterisation. Achilles is blunt and honest, only revealing his emotions to Patroclus. He believes in honour and struggles to understand that others don’t. It fit with what I already thought of the hero. My biggest issue was with Patroclus. For me the retelling was an opportunity to show he was more than just Achilles sidekick and I don’t think it did that. He constantly compares himself to Achilles and finds himself coming up short, and his love for Achilles consumes him, he loses all sense of self. He starts to find some purpose in Troy, assisting the healers who treat the wounded, but it didn’t quite make up for his lack of character. The foundation of their relationship seemed insubstantial, and like Patroclus I found myself wondering why Achilles had singled him out.
The writing mimics the voice of a great epic, but it didn’t feel authentic to me. I was constantly aware of the narrative voice and it made it hard for me to lose myself in the story as I would have liked. Some of the descriptions were repetitive, particularly in the way Achilles’ mother Thetis is described. Her voice is like rocks, her mouth a red slash, her dress like the sea. By the end of the book I was skimming the pages.
If you like Greek mythology and epic tales then this might be the book for you. It just wasn’t for me.