This Orange Prize-winning novel retells the legendary tale of Achilles from the Iliad, not as a story of war, conquest, or even heroism, really, but as a love story. The centre of the novel is the relationship between the great Greek hero Achilles and his companion, Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t explicitly state that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, though many later Greek writers presumed that they were. (And not that, in the words of the utterly-brilliant-deserves-to-be-an-epic-itself Troy in Fifteen Minutes, Patroclus was Achilles’ “Cousin. He’s my cousin. Cousin. Totally my cousin. In conclusion: Cousin.”)
Patroclus is the story’s narrator: in this telling, he is the shyer, more awkward, less brilliant and certainly less athletic of the two friends; after accidentally killing another boy Patroclus is exiled from his home and brought up as a foster child in the court of Achilles’ father. Achilles is the Big Man on Campus, gifted with a divine mother and supernatural abilities as an athlete, a musician, and most importantly, a soldier. The two are drawn together and form a lifelong bond that is both romantic and sexual. And then the Trojan War breaks out, and all hell breaks loose.
I’ve read really widely varying opinions about this book, from those who thinks it’s an instant classic worthy of Homeric status (which would presumably include the people who gave Miller the Orange Prize), to those who think that turning one of the great legends of western literature into a gay teenage romance somehow cheapens the material. Personally, I liked it a lot. I found the characters engaging and I got involved in their story, and it moved me. As opposed to, say, Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, which was a bit of a letdown from one of my favourite writers, I found that Song of Achilles really did make mythical characters human and believable.
However, I think there’s an inherent problem with translating mythic characters to modern novels: the writer is constrained by the myth, and the characters have to act more or less the way they do in the original story. I found this a weakness here, since Achilles’s actions during the Trojan War cause him to behave like a rather different person than the character that has been established throughout the first half of the book. There was never really any motivation given for this character change; we’re just supposed to accept that Achilles becomes completely fixated on his own honour and glory, even at the cost of the lives of people he cares about — just because, well, that’s what Achilles does, even though he’s not been shown to be that kind of man. I found this a bit of a limitation with the novel, but otherwise enjoyed it very much.