“I would know him in death, at the end of the world.”
The Song of Achilles is a beautifully written retelling of the Iliad told from the perspective of Patroclus, a relatively small figure in many interpretations of this story. It is a story about love and it is a story about war. It is a story about mothers and friendship and about being remembered and forgotten. And it is beautiful.
The focus upon one’s legacy and being remembered or forgotten is key to this novel. Miller’s very decision to explore a male gay romance in this interpretation enables a light to be shed on LGBT history that is often forgotten or erased itself. This allows for the idea of remembrance to become central to the novel, which is effectively expanded upon as the characters are developed and explored. The actions of many of the characters, Achilles in particular, can be seen to be related to this idea of needing to have a legacy right until the end, wherein the lives of the two central characters are immortalized in Thetis’ creation of their shared tomb.
The structure and pacing of the novel also mirrors this theme of the mortality of the characters and their need to be remembered. The pacing of the novel is purposefully inconsistent; sometimes it takes chapters for years to pass and sometimes it takes a mere sentence. This allows the reader to reflect upon their own mortality, and therefore empathize and connect with Patroclus in his struggles regarding the subject. Through use of this structuring Miller is also able to create a melancholic and foreboding tone, thus reinforcing that ideas regarding one’s legacy are completely central to this love story.
The structural choices Miller makes also allow for the exploration of the two central characters- Achilles and Patroclus- to be executed brilliantly. This is a slow burn romance, and this makes for a perfect pace for the relationship between the characters to be explored. The reader knows that their eventual downfall is inevitable, and the magnitude of this downfall is only exaggerated by the connection we feel to the characters that Miller has successfully humanized. It is this complete humanization of Achilles and Patroclus that is so refreshing, as often these characters are seen to be so elevated and to be such symbols that it can be difficult to remember that the events of the story impact them as they would you and I. We are therefore able to truly connect to the romance central to this story, as Miller is able to make it feel so real through her humanization. This can be seen in part in the portrayal of the couple not just loving each other, but truly knowing each other:
“This, I say. This and this. The way his hair looked in summer sun. His face when he ran. His eyes, solemn as an owl at lessons. This and this and this. So many moments of happiness, crowding forward.”
However, despite the focus of this retelling being upon Achilles and Patroclus and their relationship, Miller does a brilliant job of exploring and fleshing out other characters. Briseis in particular was a character that I connected with, alongside Chiron and many others. This humanization of so many of the characters made for a story that draws you in and gets you truly invested, making the ending all the more devastating.
Finally, Miller’s use of dramatic irony in this novel did not go unnoticed, and was applied in such a way that made the final chapters truly heartbreaking. The choice to switch the focus to Achilles in chapter 31 enables Miller to bring the tragedy to its height, with the inclusion of lines such as “A king has fallen, or a prince, and they are fighting for the body. Who? […] No more is revealed. Patroclus will be able to tell him.” This dramatic irony is subtle and quiet in a way that only makes the story more tragic and is perhaps one of my favorite parts of the novel.
Overall this is a truly beautiful novel, and in my opinion is fully deserving of the 5 stars that I awarded it!
“The never-ending ache of love and sorrow. Perhaps in some other life I could have refused, could have torn my hair and screamed, and made him face his choice alone. But not in this one. He would sail to Troy and I would follow, even into death.”