FICTION: The Song of Achilles (2011)

This intensely felt novelization of the Iliad and its preceding events works backward from the question of why Homer’s Achilles was so distraught over the battlefield death of Patroclus: there must have been a once-in-a-lifetime love between the two. Classics teacher Madeline Miller’s novel follows her narrator Patroclus from his socially awkward childhood, when he was first smitten with the golden-haired future hero and chosen as his confidant, to their teenage years on an idyllic mountainside where they blossom from best friends to happy lovers.

There is a poignant asymmetry between the goddess-born Achilles, so abundantly blessed with talent and popularity, and the diffident Patroclus, who would be an ordinary man destined for an ordinary life, if not for the force and purity of his grand love. We see him gift his companion with a sculpture which cost him hours to perfect, and the slight goofiness with which he says, “It’s you,” to which Achilles responds “I know”—and never gives him any similar gift in return, and yet it’s all right. It’s then breathtaking when Patroclus has the epiphany, upon their shared pillows, “I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.” That phrasing, again bespeaking the asymmetry between them, is so fresh and heartfelt.

Miller’s writing is extraordinarily lyrical, whether she is describing nature or bodies or thoughts, and Frazer Douglas’ reading of the audiobook manages to amplify the lush beauty of her every sentence. His accent is a treat: even the way he rounds the “o” in an utterance of “No” packs it with nuance. He captures our narrator’s vulnerability, makes Achilles sound suave, and gives a chilling gravelliness to the voice of Thetis, the sea nymph who hates seeing them together.

I immediately wanted to buy the physical book so I could read it again. What an eloquent, rapturous blend of Greek mythology and immortal romance.

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