I’m a massive lover of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I was incredibly excited to see which books had made the longlist this year. As usual, the list was packed full of intriguing and exciting titles by both well loved and lesser known authors. Yet even with the exciting suspense of the unknown, there were actually several books which I had correctly predicated would make the longlist. One of these was Madeline Miller’s second novel, Circe. It’s not really a surprise that this made the list as I’ve felt as though it has been pushed at me from all sides, with a massive amount of people loving the book and shouting their praise for it. Circe is definitely a book that I want to read, but I was actually determined to read her previous award winning novel, The Song of Achilles, first, and this was just the push that I needed.
The Song of Achilles is a historical fiction novel which, as you’d correctly assume, focuses upon the Greek hero Achilles and his life. Across the novel we see Achilles through the eyes of his closest friend, Patroclus, following the pair as they grow into skilled young men. Yet when Helen of Sparta is kidnapped, Achilles is dragged into a war against the Trojans, determined to prove his worth and earn his glory despite the consequences this may bring.
One of the things which surprised me the most about this novel and which I hadn’t been expecting was that it isn’t actually told from the point of view of Achilles. Achilles is arguably the most famous Greek hero, yet contrastingly the novel is told in the first person narrative of the much lesser known Patroclus. Although born a prince, Patroclus is exiled to the court of King Peleus at a young age, and it is here that he first meets Achilles. Upon reflection I actually think that this worked incredibly well for the novel. It allows readers to observe Achilles both intimately (due to his closeness to Patroclus) but also at a more removed distance, which in turn gives us a picture of Achilles with much more depth. We’re not immediately acquainted with the hero’s innermost thoughts and feelings, so we can observe him as a character much more objectively.
This decision to provide us with a slightly different point of views has also in my opinion contributed greatly to the real star of this novel, which is undoubtedly its superb characterisation. Although the novel does focus most specifically on the pairing of Patroclus and Achilles, it also touched upon a whole other range of differing characters and the ways in which the varying story lines overlap. From Kings and soldiers to slaves and sea goddesses; the range of characters within this novel really does give us a great taste of the sheer depth and variety within Greek mythology. No matter how large their role in the main plot, we feel as though we know these characters intimately. The author gives us the time to become attuned to their thoughts and feelings and gives us an incredibly accessible taste of Greek mythology.
Despite its accessibility, I am unsure as to just how accurate this novel is. Madeline Miller is of course a knowledgeable woman and is part of the academic world surrounding Greek Mythology. As such I trust her very much in the larger plot point and details, but, of course, the author is free and expected to take some sort of authorial license with her novel. After all, we must remember that this is a fictional account and has been adapted more than likely with the enjoyment of readers in mind. Even so, I never felt as though there was anything ridiculous or unbelievable in this, and I had faith that the author had adapted her novel from various ideas that already existed in some way or another.
Maybe one of the biggest things which might make some people slightly dubious is the fact that there is a great emphasis placed upon the romantic relationship between Pratoclus and Achilles. I’ve done a bit of basic internet research myself and it does appear that there is evidence to suggest that this may have been the case (bearing in mind of course that this is all still mythology and not fact!) In all honesty, even if this wasn’t the case it really wouldn’t have bothered me. The author writes these parts of her novel beautifully and with great detail which in turn increases your interest and attachment to the characters. I also quite honestly just think that it’s really refreshing to read a novel in which the main characters are gay and aren’t your stereotypical white straight men. Likewise, from what I do know of the Greek myths and indeed more general Greek history, they are well known to have been quite sexually liberated with quite often ambiguous sexualities. As such, these aspects of the novel are accurate, even if they are still technically based upon myths!
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I can understand why it has gotten such high praise in the past. Madeline Miller does a brilliant job of providing us with all the finer details of the Greek period coming together with her own additions to create this rich backdrop that seems wholly authentic, even if it’s not!
‘Madeline Miller maintains the great story telling tradition that walks hand in hand with Greek mythology, giving us a thrilling tale of amazing feats, yet also an incredibly human an emotive story that will resonate within us.’