What are the chances of reading only one book from the Orange Prize longlist and it turning out to be the winner? I wish I could say I've simply got a knack for picking winners, but it was more a time and chance thing and the fact that The Song of Achilles appealed to me the most when the list came out. In any case I was very pleased when it was announced that Miller won (and my fingers had been crossed for her). I had started writing this post last weekend, but I ran out of steam and didn't finish it thinking I'd save it for later. Now I'm inspired to post it while the momentum is there.
If I had to choose right now, today, what my favorite book of the year is, I would without hesitation pick Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles. For me it was a pitch perfect story that had all the right elements in just the right measure--beautifully written, poignantly (and I mean that in a good way) told and perceptively presented. I've put off writing about it as I feel like I can't really do the story justice but before the details (very sadly) begin fading from memory, as happens with all books eventually, I wanted to mention it here. It even has inspired me on my next reading path, which is a nod of appreciation and praise in Miller's direction for her exquisite storytelling abilities.
The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the Trojan War. Achilles was the son of one of the lesser goddesses, Thetis, and the mortal Peleus. Known for both his beauty and his skill as a warrior, it is through the eyes of his companion Patroclus that we see him. So this is as much Patroclus's story as it is that of Achilles. When given the choice of a long life lived in obscurity or a short one that would be memorialized Achilles chooses fame. Of course we know his fame is achieved on the battlefield, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
After he accidentally kills another youth Patroclus is sent to Phthia to be raised in the court of King Peleus. A disappointment to his father, Patroclus couldn't be more different than Achilles. Although he is himself the son of kings, he's small and awkward and not skilled in the abilities most prized. Achilles, however, is a golden boy. He's self assured and talented both in playing the lyre as well as on the training ground. Already at a young age he knows of the prophecy that he will be the greatest warrior of his generation, and therefore it's forbidden for anyone to watch him as he refines his battle skills.
Perhaps at first he feels sorry for him, or is intrigued by him, but Achilles takes Patroclus under his wing and the two become friends and companions. When Achilles is sent away to Mount Pelion to continue his education, Patroclus follows him. Tutored by the centaur, Chiron, the boys grow to be young men but their idyll spoiled when Paris steals the beautiful Helen from her husband. Patroclus is bound by honor to fight for her release and Achilles must follow his destiny, but the war will be a trial for both young men as they test their mettle and their friendship. It's particularly so for Achilles who must live up to the name he is destined to make for himself.
Madeline Miller, a Latin and Ancient Greek language scholar, also studied at the Yale School of Drama where she specialized in adapting classics tales for modern audiences. She obviously knows her material and how to present it in a way that both stays true to it's original form, but is still exciting and captivating to readers. It's certainly not necessary to know the myths to appreciate this book. I had only the vaguest recollection of the story and it has inspired me to learn more. More than just a gripping story, it has much to say as well about love and loyalty, dedication and honor and lessons that could easily be applied to the contemporary world. I guess that's what makes classic literature so important--the ease with which it can be adapted useful no matter how many years separate the creation from the retelling. It's a story that Miller has breathed new life into and one that deserves to be read.