The Song of Achilles
I’ve read this novel few weeks ago and ever since am thinking to write review. I’m somewhere in between and not sure what to think about it. So first I’d like to stress that the book is definitively worth reading and I liked it. Truth, I tend not to be too strict, too judgmental when reviewing debut novel (yes, there is “but”).
First impression: it’s clearly there is a massive research about the topic behind the story (which is not surprise considering professional background of the author); I liked a lot she took “Iliad” and Homer as a main resource, therefore there is no famous legend about “Achilles’ heel” (which is unseen in the “Iliad”). Truth, she changed characters, chronology, etc a little bit but that’s fine considering it’s a piece of fiction and in that case artistic freedom is untouchable constant.
When I read “Iliad” in high school I didn’t like Achilles that much. He was like a savage, truth just like the world he lived in. Patroclus as well, though he was kind but nevertheless quite a valiant warrior. However, in the novel they couldn’t be more far away from their image in “Iliad”. They were soft, nature and music loving characters, artistic souls. That especially is the case with Patroclus who is presented as weak (physically and mantaly), clumsy, even as a coward (except that famous last move he made but then it was more love that lead him than his rational he) … it was weird and I’m not sure if I liked that. And the language didn’t help either. It’s strange to mark as a flaw beautiful writing style. It is lovely but in kind of over-blossoming way, it’s lyrically overwritten. Even though the narrator is a man (yes, homosexual but still) those words, sentences he’s saying are so feminine. You simply know those words have been put in his mouth by a woman’s hand. This is (or should be) historical novel with one love story as a main theme and as such there are moment when you can’t escape from the feeling that descriptions are kind of soft-pornish. But don’t get me wrong, there are no sex scenes whatsoever.
Even though I never thought profoundly about that, it’s pretty much obvious that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. I like she put an accent on their relationship as it was [in one interview she expressed her hope the novel will at least slightly change that homophobic perception about homosexual relationships] but then she made a crucial error: She described their society exactly as if they live in our own. They were facing disapproval of both men and gods because of the feeling they had. And while you can give yourself artistic freedom to change the legend, with this issue you’re entering into the sphere of historical (more/less) facts where you don’t have that freedom anymore.
Not only ancient Greeks but pretty much all pre-Christian civilizations: Romans, gosh just remember (or check if you’re unfamiliar with) Khajuraho Temples in India! I visited India (and temples) in March and you just can’t not be stunned with what you’re looking at as well as with nonchalant way they were depicting all varieties of sexual activity (and I mean ALL!). And temples were built 1000 years ago!
Anyway, point is: homosexuality was something quite common and definitively not prohibited or shameful (like in the novel). It was even called: “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens.” (Wikipedia). Truth that mostly (probably exclusively) refers to men. Women were quite socially excluded which is one of the reason why it was acceptable relationship between two men.
Therefore it was kind of strange to see how society is judgmental toward Achilles and Patroclus just as nowadays society would be. And here (along with few more issues, some of which I mentioned here) novel falls horribly.
But even so I think it’s worth reading and, as my friend who gave me the book said (don’t be surprised if realize that you’ll) “think of Achilles differently now”.