Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on April 12th 2012
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles's mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.
Ah, The Song of Achilles. The best Iliad retelling I have ever had the pleasure to read. I can’t promise not to hint at spoilers in here, just to warn you.
Every time I dare to read this book it breaks me apart and leaves me severely emotionally compromised, I first read it in 2012. I remember crying my eyes out when I finished it that summer, in between revising for exams. I’ve praised the book ever since but haven’t dared pick it up again until very recently because just thinking about it makes me emotional. It’s a very powerful book. One should always tread gently around such books. But I’ve finally done it. I’ve reconnected with the beast.
At the beginning of my reread I began to feel afraid that The Song of Achilles wouldn’t affect me the way it did before but I needn’t have worried. My heart was well and truly shattered by the end. Even knowing what was going to happen didn’t protect me.
The Song of Achilles is told from the first person perspective of Patroclus, Achilles close companion and lover. Both their childhood together and their fateful time in Troy is recounted by Patroclus, even beyond the point you would expect this to be possible.
Patroculus tells his story in retrospect, beginning with hazy memories from his ealry years as a prince, prior to his exile. An element of unreliability is inherent in this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Patroclus has to question his own take on his early memories and develop his understanding and perception of the past as he goes along and gets closer and closer to the crescendo at the end.
As Patroclus is tracing the threads of his fate backwards from an unexpected point in his life, he lingers and explores everything that is important to him and what has become of him. Including what links him to Helen, the war in Troy and, most importantly, his developing relationship with Achilles.
The narrative voice is very well crafted. The language used is unfussy but packs a real punch due to it’s simplicity and clarity. Every sentence is formed just right. I wouldn’t want a thing changed.
What I love most about this novel is the impact of the ending in light of everything we’ve read to that point. The Song of Achilles is at once a love story and a tragedy. Patroclus is such a deeply good character that the hand he is dealt seems so punishingly unfair sometimes that it hurts to read. But it’s a healthy kind of hurt. It’s the kind of hurt I think the best literature should try to trigger in a reader: a real care and investment in the characters and story.
The story here is not in itself ‘new’ but Madeline Miller tells it in such a special way that I cannot help but hold her version as the dearest to my heart. To me, everything builds to this one line at the end: “I am made of memories.” View Spoiler »It’s the blunt declaration Patroclus’ spirit makes to the goddess Thetis, Achilles mother, who has never until that moment understood that the key to her son’s heart and happiness was always Patroclus. « Hide Spoiler
When you get to the point where you can fully appreciate that the content of this whole book, this narrative that has been so magically spun, is representative of all that is left and makes up what Patroclus fundamentally is, it just feels like everything. I can’t explain the feeling any better than that. My heart both breaks and soars when I read that sentence. “I am made of memories” is one of the most devastating phrases I know in the context of this beautiful story.
This book is absolute perfection.