Cultures Literature Monthly Review

April Review: ‘The Song of Achilles’

Illustration by Ben Beechener

All bookworms have been there… the dreaded reading slump. No plot seems interesting enough. The words on the page start to blur together. Reading seems like so much more effort than just parking yourself on the sofa and watching hours of mindless television. There must be something on Dave. But there’s another layer to this. You’ve just received your reading list for Trinity term, and yet again, your tutors have somehow managed to outdo themselves. You now have more books than ever to read and, quite frankly, all the books seem a bit poncy and highfalutin. 

My answer to any reading slump: Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

I hadn’t read this book for two years, but even so everything about it stayed fresh in my memory. Miller’s characters are so vivid, and life-like that the reader can practically imagine having met them. It doesn’t matter that it seems utterly unplausible to have met ancient Greek heroes – the towering Ajax, the cunning Odysseus, or the quick-tempered Agamemnon. The descriptions of the best friends Achilles and Patroclus are so detailed that you can almost convince yourself that you’re one of them. Two years after I had read this book for the first time, I devoured it and was as invested as if I had no clue about what was to come. Miller had me reading her book faster than I’ve ever read anything in my entire life. Voltaire and Tolstoy could never.

The Song of Achilles is undoubtedly the most beautiful book you’ll ever read. Even from the title, the reference to poetry and song is clear and indeed, Madeline Miller’s writing is poetic, and not only because it is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad. The images she creates and the rhythm of her writing, despite being prose, are no less captivating than Homer’s original Greek. I would say that The Song of Achilles offers a more accessible version of the Iliad for modern audiences, and specifically for non-classicists. It stays faithful to the original plot-trajectory but focuses more on the relationship between Achilles and his right-hand man, Patroclus. Moreover, Miller does not shy away from the potential homosexual undertones in Homer’s original like some other modern reinterpretations, namely the 2004 adaptation Troy, have.

Besides this, The Song of Achilles is a poignant story of love and loss, of friendship and power, and explores what it truly means to be a hero, not just by Classical standards, but by one’s actions, behaviour, and treatment of others. This book, at its core, explores what it means to be human, whether mortal or demigod, and the inherent flaws that come with being human. It is heart-wrenching and soul-destroying, but wonderfully so. In short, The Song of Achillesis the perfect bit of escapism that is guaranteed to brighten up your day and rip your heart to shreds with poetic ruthlessness. It is, quite simply, the perfect book.

When she's not drowning in the workload from her French and Russian degree, Sophie enjoys reading, yoga, ballet and writing. You can usually find her staying up all night in the throes of an existential crisis or in your nearest bookshop.