REVIEW: A Moving Story Hindered by the Beauty in Love and Violence

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Bell Piccirillo, Editor

         For a while, I put off reading “The Song of Achilles,” the debut novel by Madeline Miller. It’s not that I was uninterested in reading it, but quite the opposite. This was one of those books that I knew from the start I needed to sit down and thoroughly enjoy. It was not one to be rushed through, but rather to be savored and experienced. After finally settling down to start, I was pleasantly surprised when I found my instincts validated. This book deserves time and analysis, not a quick glance.   

     Told from the narrator of Patroclus, a young Greek prince and the companion to the young warrior Achillies, this novel goes into detail about the deep and infinite relationship between the two men after Patroclus is found having to live in Achillies’ father’s court. Their bond forms quickly and is unmatched to any other bond between any other human they have ever encountered before. They survive being dragged into the toils of the Trojan War, and even when tainted with brutal tragedy (as any reader of “The Iliad” knows), the devotion between the characters remains solid throughout the beautiful chaos of war.  

       Miller captures through her writing a world that sits at the crossroads of myth and history. While the common knowledge of Greek mythology is that it is, in fact, myth; her characters are based upon real historical events that created a basis for the narrative. In the novel, the gods are indeed portrayed as part of the fictitious world, but it’s almost as if Miller intended for them to be hovering offscreen. The preciseness of the writing reveals Patroclus’s deepest thoughts, insecurities and emotions. We feel what he feels, we experience with him his pain and suffering, we can feel the joy of reunion, we can watch him, powerless, as the inner workings of his and Achillies’ fate are intertwined. 

       Is it fair to judge a book by its cover? Some say absolutely not, but that is quite precisely what I did when this book caught my eye in the Boulder Bookstore on Pearl Street Mall. The book highlights themes of reputation and pride when the two get into disputes over the classics of love and war. With fame comes the desire for fame, and being fated for greatness from the gods can bring one to have a large head. Achilles and Patroclus struggle with the obsession of reputations and jealousy over the fortune of the other, followed by a drive for compassion. A recipe for disaster in itself. 

      “Human nature and its attendant folly, passion, pride, and generosity has not changed in the past three thousand years, and is always relevant,” Miller said during a Q and A when the first copy of her novel was published. To say that “The Song of Achilles” is an interesting book, would be the understatement of millennia.  To say that it is a profoundly moving and breathtakingly original hits a little closer to how hard this novel hit me.  This rendering of the epic Trojan War is a dazzling feat of the imagination, a devastating love story and an almighty battle between gods and kings, peace and glory, immortal fame and the human psyche. Featuring the mythical personalities of young Achilles and Patroclus, this heart-wrenching piece will have Greek/Roman mythology fanatics greedily turning every page.