The Song of Achilles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 June, 2012, 12:00am


The Song of Achilles
by Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury (e-book)

Madeline Miller has just won the Orange Prize with her debut The Song of Achilles, although the novel is not the most obvious winner. For one thing, the tale is not new: Achilles' intimate and amorous relationship with Patroclus has been recast by everyone from Oliver Stone to Mary Renault. What is striking is Miller's decision to tell Patroclus' side of the story. As the action starts, he is a somebody nobody knows: 'My father was a king and the son of kings ... Quickly, I became a disappointment: small, slight. I was not fast. I was not strong. I could not sing.' The exiled Patroclus is the antithesis of Achilles, the hero of Phthia. The pair meets as boys. Achilles offers protection, then friendship, then mentorship and, finally, love. Unfortunately for Patroclus, Achilles' mother is none too happy - even worse, she is Thetis, a sea goddess. Thetis awaits her chance for revenge. When a woman by the name of Helen is kidnapped and shipped off to a place called Troy, it seems her time has come. Miller writes vividly, with velocity and a feel for her subject. There is some cod-classicism: 'Everyone ... had heard the story of Thetis' ravishment.' But Miller is a genuine classicist and a class act.