Sunday, January 06, 2013

Book 3: The Song of Achilles

While I was in Barnes and Noble last week, I decided to take a different approach than usual and instead of spending most of my time scouring the tables with new or noteworthy fiction, I went through the actual shelved section of "fiction and literature", picking up anything that sounded interesting.  Generally, it seems like there is too much for anything to stand out in the shelves but this book caught my eye, and the first few pages held my interest so I got it with my Christmas gift cards.  I was also pleasantly surprised to see that it had won the Orange Prize last year (I now feel like I should pay more attention to lists when making my decisions but usually when the list is announced the novels are still only available in hardcover and then I forget).
I have always loved Greek mythology.  Naturally, I'm familiar with the story of The Illiad, but I can't say I have ever really had that much interest in Achilles (except when he was portrayed by Brad Pitt).  He just always seemed like he was too concerned with honor, and it is hard not to think of him as a petulant child when he refuses to fight even though his comrades with whom he has shared the battle field for almost a decade are dying because of his absence.  While several novels have been written about the Trojan War (including ones from the perspective of Penelope and Helen), none of the ones I've read have really done Achilles any favors.  He is either barely mentioned or portrayed negatively: in Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Firebrand he is portrayed as a psychopath, and even Shakespeare portrays him as a coward that couldn't defeat Hector honorably and had to ambush him in an unsuspecting moment in Troilus and Cressida.  It's always been easy to like Odysseus, the clever one, the trickster, but Achilles is a difficult figure.  I'm not sure if it is just due to being from a more modern time, or if even people in past periods had similar problems with the great warrior.
The Song of Achilles is actually narrated by Patroclus, who depending on the source and interpretation has been portrayed as either Achilles's best friend or his lover (or his cousin).  Patroclus has spent his entire young life as a disappointment to his father, he is weak and slow, the son of a simple mother.  After ten year old Patroclus accidentally kills a boy while defending himself for possibly the first time ever, his father has no problem sending him into exile to Phthia, the kingdom ruled by Peleus, father of Achilles.  Despite what Patroclus considers his extreme ordinariness, Achilles takes an interest in him, and chooses him as a companion.  As they grow up Patroclus develops romantic feelings for Achilles, the beautiful boy who is incredibly fast and skilled, loves to play the lyre and who is already prophesied to be the greatest warrior of his time though Patroclus does not act on them except for one kiss, once.  Thetis, the sea nymph goddess and mother of Achilles, develops an early hatred of Patroclus, feeling him beneath her son as a mere mortal.  Still, Achilles is more than pleased when Patroclus chooses to follow him to his training with Chiron, centaur and teacher of heroes.  They are up on Mount Pelion for their training for three years before reality interferes and Peleus calls them back.  Though Achilles is set to be the greatest warrior, his training on Mount Pelion focused on arts and medicine and other random skills.  Patroclus and Achilles have already changed the basis of ther relationship by this point, becoming lovers, thus making everything that happens later so much easier to understand and more poignant.
Achilles knows the prophecies, and he knows he has the potential to be renowned for the rest of history but die young, or to be obscure and long-lived.  Obviously, he chooses fame, but Miller shows an Achilles that is a thoughtful and caring boy/teenager rather than a bloodthirsty warrior searching for fame.  Patroclus, a kind man who was more drawn to Chiron's medical knowledge, hates the idea of warfare but still describes Achilles as beautiful in battle - for Achilles, it is not about the killing but the challenge, preferring to take on large groups in battle rather than individuals. Given how gentle and noncombative Patroclus was, I was really curious to see how Madeline was going to make the end of the novel work without it seeming like she was completely changing his character, and it worked really well.  Equally, I completely bought how the Achilles of the earlier part of the novel became so prideful at a later part of the novel.  It seems like a lot of times when people write historical fiction or other pieces based on events and people that existed/ are from other pieces of fiction, the author does such a good job of humanizing the villain that decisions made later don't make sense at all with the character that the author created.  The actions and decisions have to happen because the real person (or character in another narrative) made/did them but often times they seem incongruous with the novel's character.  In this case, Miller finds the perfect balance between making the characers relatable and likable, but showing their flaws and making their decisions seem organic to her novel rather than simply things they have to do because that's what happened in The Illiad.
This novel was absolutely amazing, and I loved how she changed my view of Patroclus and Achilles, portraying a truly moving and touching love story.  If I hadn't been in public, there is a good chance I would have cried at the ending (or a few pages before the ending).  Highly recommend this to anyone, unless the idea of reading a love story between two men makes them squeamish.  If that is the case, you're missing out on a great story and beautiful novel.  I know it's early in the year to say this, but I could easily see this one making my top ten list for 2013.

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