The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

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”.


The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.