I’ve recently rattled through The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. I do like Greek myths and had seen lots of good reviews of this retelling of the story of Achilles and Patroclus, so I dived in eagerly. I was surprised by what an easy read it was and slightly disappointed to be absolutely honest.
However, let me describe the best bits of the book first. The ending was moving and the narrative was pacey. Miller also has a nice turn of phrase and her portrayal of Thetis in particular is very good:
I turned. Thetis stood at the edge of the clearing, her bone-white skin and black hair bright as slashes of lightening. The dress she wore clung close to her body and shimmered like fish-scale. My breath died in my throat…She stepped forward, and the grass seemed to wilt beneath her feet. She was a sea-nymph, and the things of the earth did not love her.
However, the book felt very superficial and shallow in general. A good example of this is the description of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia. The whole incident is horrific and yet it is dealt with in around two pages. There is no real insight into Agamemnon’s motivation or character beyond his brutal ruthlessness and the girl’s mother, Clytemnestra, is dealt with in a passing comment that explained the lie of the wedding: ‘It was the only way Clytemnestra would let the girl come’. How she reacted to the murder of her daughter? What the consequences for Agamemnon’s marriage? What made him so brutal? These were just some of my unanswered questions about this episode alone, but there were many more throughout the whole book. This brevity reminded me of some young adult fiction rather than the literary fiction it purports to be. I should say at this point that I am not a classics snob or expert in any way, but I did study Latin and Classics at school and my father-in-law is an excellent (recently retired) Classics teacher, so my background knowledge about this story and my expectations may well be artificially high. To present a balanced view, I’ve included some newspaper review links here – The Guardian disagrees with me, but the Independent is a little nearer to my point of view.
In conclusion, this is an excellent holiday book as it requires little concentration and it is undoubtably a page-turner. However, it is also a very dumbed down version of this wonderful legend.