Mary Renault for our time
First, the very very bad news. This is a first novel. If you enjoyed it – and I absolutely did – then I guess extreme patience will be called for while the author writes her second book.
I was heavily enamoured of the myths and history of Ancient Greece as a child, and finding Mary Renault’s Bull from the Sea (Theseus) was a revelation and a weird delight. The strange weaving of known history and the stuff of legend, both disturbing and alluring.
Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is right in this zone. She wears her evident learning lightly, and has written a powerful story which we know can only end badly – all ancient Greek history, once those gods appear, always does.
This is at heart The Iliad accessible for a modern reader. It is primarily the story of Achilles and Patroclus, and if you know your Greek history, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Helen, Paris, Hector, Odysseus, jealous gods, vengeful sea-nymphs, wooden horses and the siege of Troy, you will know the ins and outs of the plot already, and that our lovers are doomed.
It is the journey, not the inevitable destination, which matters here. What can I say about the quality of Miller’s writing except to say that there were times I had to stop reading because her brilliant characterisation was such that I just couldn’t bear to get to some of the outcomes.
A stunning first novel. All I can hope is that she completed number two before her first got published, so that we don’t have to wait too long