Book Review: The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

By Aayudh Pramanik

Miller really hit the jackpot with this one. The book took up a whopping 10 years of her life, and trust me when I say this, the book felt like something she had been working towards her entire life, only to be recognized after her premature-multitalented-artist death; easily her Magnum Opus, her zenith. It was a zenith, put in relativity to other zeniths, high enough to last her seven lifetimes of fame; and I hate to say this, but its rather unfortunately the truth, esoteric fame. I can only account for how much the ignorant ones are missing out on. Well, guess what, it was her debut novel. A little jaw dropping to say the least.

It is set in ancient Greece, covering mostly everything from the birth of Achilles, to his death in the Trojan War. I am sure you have heard multiple accounts of the exploits of the ever so legendary Achilles and how he single-handedly paved the way for the fall of the so famed impregnable city of Troy. You have heard of his skyscraping hubris, his immortality and his skills in the art of wielding weapons for the purpose of claiming brainwashed lives. You have heard of his honor and everything he staked on that single word. What then, makes this book so special? What makes this rendition of the same story over and over again stand out, so much so that I said whatever I said about it in the first paragraph? Let’s break it down.

  • You know how it is a little difficult to follow the ancient language used in Shakespearean literature and that used in epics, and in the process of trying to decipher what the author is actually trying to get at, you lose out on feeling the emotions that laces the narrative? Yes, I suppose most of us modern readers relate to that. It honestly feels like you have been handed the blueprints of an enormous mansion and asked to identify secret passages throughout it. No matter how seasoned the multitasker in you is, it’s a little bit of an ordeal trying to feel the writing in your blood when you are busy trying to feel it in your brain. This book was designed with the modern reader in mind. A rendition of an ancient story, only spiced up more and easier to understand? Sounds like the deal to me.
  • It is the perfect size in terms of volume! It has 416 pages in total and not very time consuming at all! You will certainly not have to go around hunting for all the 24 parts of the Iliad to know the highlights of the story!
  • It is affordable, priced at INR 599 and is available in most bookstores including online ones!
  • Miller, of course, added a few twists to the story, also for consumption by the modern reader. This book adds dimensions to who we simply know as a glorified, immortal, unbeatable-in-combat, conceited killing machine. It paints him in the light of a lover, a father and a son and you will just have to take my word for it when I say, this sort of gave birth to one of the most powerful, passion laden love stories of the age, the love that flowed stronger than electricity between Patroclus- an exile who was fostered in the Kingdom of Phthia, ruled by Peleus, Achilles’ father- and Achilles. We see a side of Achilles never seen before, and we also see Achilles through the eyes of Patroclus and it is indubitably the most beautiful thing in the world. There might be spoilers ahead, so I suggest, if you haven’t read the book, you skip the rest of this point. I mean, when was the last time someone thought about their lover in the lines, “Will I feel his ashes as they fall against mine” (a line said by Patroclus in the book.) Patroclus represents the compassionate side of Achilles, the human side, the mortal side; the side which shows us how much Achilles actually had to lose when he made the decision to go to war against Troy, because if you know the story, there was Prophecy that warned him that he would never return from Troy if he made the decision to go. He knew he was, quite in its literal and metaphorical sense, walking into his coffin, pun intended. Patroclus was the only human being that Achilles would go to hell and back for, and it only existed in extremes. The others, he could not care less for, there was no in-between. Patroclus was Achilles’ strength; he was Achilles’ weakness. It is quite tragic to see how Patroclus is the one who still ends up dying first, despite preparing for his lover to die first and doing everything in his power to grab the extra second with Achilles while he was still alive.

A word comes to mind as I say this, “Ya’aburnee”, an Arabic word which is used to declare the hope that one’s lover would die first because of how unbearable it would be to live without them. No book has ever made me feel as deeply as this and I hope you have the same thing to say about it once you are done reading it.

If you are the dramatic type, like me, then let me serenade the memorial of this book with following lines from the song Till Forever Falls Apart by Ashlyn and Finneas:

“If the tide takes California
I’m so glad I got to hold ya
And if the sky falls from heaven above
Oh, I know I had the best time falling into love
We’ve been living on a fault line
And for a while, you were all mine
I’ve spent a lifetime giving you my heart
I swear that I’ll be yours forever
‘Til forever falls apart”.

Befitting, isn’t it?

Book: The Song Of Achilles | Author: Madeline Miller | Publisher: Bloomsbury India | Pages: 416 | Price: INR 599/-