It’s never a good idea to meddle with the gods, and with very few exceptions literary history proves that it’s not even a good idea to meddle with stories about the gods. It is to that exceptional community that Madeline Miller belongs now that her first book is a re-telling of the god-tormented relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, a partnership crucial to the intricate plotting of The Iliad.
Although the action culminates at the siege of Troy with the death of Patroclus and the frenzied revenge of Achilles, Miller writes the back-story, the parentage and exile of Patroclus and the provenance of his hero and lover, son of the goddess Thetis.
A teacher and classicist, she is on very familiar terms with the characters of the Trojan saga, humanising them to a degree rarely attempted by other writers. The background story of an uncertain and unloved boy finding refuge, education and finally reciprocated passion with Achilles is given with confidence and, to give Miller her due, with conviction.
She ignores the debate on whether or not we are to read the love between the two men as physical and makes it absolutely clear that this was a homosexual commitment. That makes a kind of sense — although who are we to second-guess Homer? — given the manic quality of Achilles’ grief following the death of his lover at the hands of Hector. That death gives the plot access to even more deaths, all arranged by those indifferent yet interfering gods.
Inevitably, however, there is a sense of distance. Miller can’t help it, these men and the women — largely unfortunate: think of Iphigenia, or Polyxena — of their society are doubly far-off, being both legendary and epic.
Winner of this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction, The Song of Achilles is written with well-managed pace and with an intuitive and sympathetic imagination, unafraid, like Homer himself, of metaphor and appeals to memory. But Helen, Priam and even Troy are old material from which to fashion a new garment and Miller doesn’t completely pull it off, although she does a good job on the self-contained Odysseus.
The novel’s weakest chapters are those in which the dead Patroclus speaks of the aftermath; it is as if the writer couldn’t decide where to bring this story to an end. Hard to blame her; it must have been difficult to resist the arrival of Pyrrhus without whom, as the gods foretold, Troy would not be vanquished.
And there is something poignant in the final attempted reconciliation between the ghost of Patroclus and the unsettled sea-queen Thetis, unable to contact her dead son and unwilling to console his dead lover. Even the gods, in Miller’s prose, deserve forgiveness.