The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Lisa Harrison

Whenever I visit my grandparents, I time it to coincide with that afternoon’s episode of Pointless. We don’t talk while Pointless is on, which removes the risk of awkward questions about who I am ‘courting’ and anything to do with those abominable gays. There I was a few months ago, sitting quietly, sipping tea and thinking about what a cute couple Alexander and Richard would make, when my grandmother turns to me and utters one of the most horrifying sentences that a grandmother could say:

“Lisa… have you read that Fifty Shades of Grey?”

Oh god no. HORROR. I pretend not to hear her. She repeats. I shake my head brusquely, try to remove myself from the situation by thinking about Alexander and Richard walking in the Peak District hand in hand, laughing at some piece of trivia or another before becoming serious, wordlessly acknowledging that their love is the only thing that is not pointless in this world. My grandmother ignores my obvious discomfort and asks if I know anything about the book, before my grandfather pipes up:

“It’s about bondage, you stupid woman!”

Every single atom in my body flies apart, and I melt right into the magnolia patterned carpet to meet cheerful oblivion. I am no more. Thanks a lot, fanfiction!

Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles is, essentially, a homoerotic Homeric fanfiction depicting the friendship and romance between Patroclus and Achilles (a couple who are arguably canon), set during the events of the Illiad. Ten years in the writing, The Song of Achilles was, after eight hours of deliberation by the judges, awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012. The literati responded with characteristic snobbery: the novel sits on the fence between popular and literary fiction, seemingly unwilling to make a definitive play for either side.

That may well be true. The Song of Achilles does not reach the dizzying heights of previous Orange Prize winners such as Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun, but what does it say when I would rather read Miller’s take on gay romance than that of the ever so ponderous Alan Hollinghurst?

It’s ok Alan, I still love you.

Reviewing on story alone, The Song of Achilles was an entertaining and easy read, and the ending made me cry a bit. Well, a lot. Ok, maybe I was sobbing in the foetal position. While I am notorious for crying through basically every TV show or film (anything from Wife Swap to Embarrassing Bodies), the only other book that made me cry was the last Harry Potter, so take from that what you will. Aside from the whole war thing, the story sometimes resembles a high school romance, with Patroclus in the role of nerdish social outcast and Achilles the hunky quarterback (whatever that is). There’s even a training montage with a centaur.

Incidentally, poor gay Patroclus was left out of the Hollywood disaster that was 2004’s Troy, but feel free to imagine Brad Pitt in the adorable on-trend gladiator sandals of Miller’s Achilles, if that sort of thing rings your bell.

Where the novel fell short for me was in Miller’s style. Loathed though I am to criticise someone who spent an entire decade of their life on one book, I felt that she never really got to grips with Patroclus as a narrator. We meet him when he is nine years old, but his perspective doesn’t seem to age from that point. Miller lets events define his personality, as opposed to showing it in the narrative. Patroclus doesn’t really mature, which leads to him looking like a simpering lovesick puppy even through the savagery of the siege on Troy, and Achilles acting like a Broadway diva instead of a warrior.

When does fanfiction become, well, fiction? Is it elitist to even distinguish the two? While there are some undoubtedly terrible fanfiction writers out there (Hi E. L. James!), there must be many more that deserve to be published. And while we’re casting aspersions on people’s writing ability, I could name more than a few published authors whose work could be happily condemned to some long-forgotten LiveJournal. The ownership of a publishing contract is no longer a mark of legitimacy, if it ever was. That said, regardless of its status as popular fiction or well-written fanfiction, The Song of Achilles is a fun, devastating, engaging read, and it is wonderful to see a gay bestseller reaching such acclaim.

The first four chapters are available to read here.

About Lisa Harrison

Lisa is a proofreader and aspiring publisher who lives in a Northern town where people still travel by horse and cart. She believes that reading is fundamental. Find her on Twitter – @immin

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