Friday, November 23, 2018

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I recently watched Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic of Freddie Mercury and Queen's rise to fame. It's an amazing movie and Rami Malek outdoes himself - you should totally go see it if you haven't already. It's the type of movie that wins awards. Anyway, I was sitting in that theater, rocking out to the Queen songs (and other songs from the period, like Rick James's Super Freak), having a good time (having a good time), and then tragedy struck. I couldn't even say I didn't know it was coming, because I totally did. But when he was in that doctor's office, I started crying. And when he was performing at the LIVE AID concert, and started singing the most heart-rending performance of Bohemian Rhapsody that I ever heard, I started crying. I saw it with friends and we were all discreetly sniffing, like, "Oh my God, you guys, can you believe these allergies?" but we were all lying, of course. Those were tears. Tears.

Anyway, when I read THE SONG OF ACHILLES, the same thing happened. I knew, going in, what to expect. I've read The Iliad and seen the movies based on it. I know what happens. Heck, I just read Pat Barker's THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS, which is Briseis's account of the whole chain of affairs, so you can't even say that maybe I'd just plumb forgotten. Nope. And yet, when I got to that part, I started crying like I did the first time I watched Bambi. It was a betrayal. I guess it's testament to the author's story-telling abilities that I still felt that gutting surprise.

I told myself when reading THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS that I wasn't going to compare Pat Barker to Madeline Miller, that it wasn't really fair to considering that they are different authors trying to do very different things. SILENCE OF THE GIRLS gives a voice to that oft-forgotten casualty of war: women. Briseis's narrative chronicles her abduction by the Greeks, her ill-use by Achilles, the occasional sympathy tossed to her like table scraps, her further ill-treatment by Agamemnon, and basically serves the message: to the victor go the spoils, and to the spoils life is a Baskin Robbins of hell consisting of 21 different flavors, plus toppings. Especially if you are a woman. The relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was there, but it was more of an afterthought; an, oh, so that's why Achilles went crazy that one time. Okay.

THE SONG OF ACHILLES is more of a romance. It follows Patroclus, the narrator, as a young prince who meets Achilles during his exile. The two form a close bond that starts as friendship and ends as something much more meaningful. Both boys, despite their best efforts to avoid the war, are forced into it knowing that they are both doomed. It's The Hunger Games all over again, but with a much more depressing ending, and trust me. Knowing that ending is coming doesn't lessen the blow. I found myself rooting for them against all odds, silently hoping that the author would find it in her heart to give them a happy ending (my romance side) while also silently hoping that she wouldn't (my purist literary snoot-snoot side). You can probably guess which side won, from the crying.

I don't think that this is quite the masterwork that CIRCE was, but it's still an amazing love story and an amazing piece of historical fiction. Cue me adding this author to my list of stalkables, because so far she hasn't written a thing I didn't like, and that circle of precious trust is mighty small indeed. If you like Greek myths and you like beautiful boys in love and you like crying your eyes out masochistically in the dead of night after reading a hideously good book, this is your deal.

4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars

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