So I know I said I was (I am!) taking a blog holiday, but I couldn’t resist checking back in to let you know about the excellent Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. You’d think that a novel about the life of Achilles and the Trojan war could only be dull (that was certainly my impression going in), but wowbamzonk but this book is great. (I’ll admit I decided to read it because it won the Orange Prize – one of the few literary prizes that I find consistently delivers an exceptional read). I’d especially recommend it for a trip to the cottage as it’s entirely engrossing, and is neither candy-fluff-mindless, nor emotionally/mentally taxing. It strikes an ideal cottage/beach balance of smart, character-driven (with the well established plot) and entertaining.
Narrated from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s companion and lover, the novel explores the great love of these two figures and the way ‘forbidden’ love is navigated by family, nation and gods. The novel is roughly divided in two with the first half setting up the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, along with establishing Achilles’s god-like (or godly?) powers and the future the two men want for themselves (along with the likely future). The second half takes on the Trojan War itself, narrating battles, but more interested in how a ten year war/seige is waged and the impact on the local communities/the flourishing of camp life.
Fascinating throughout is the extent to which Achiells is motivated by his desire for historic longevity – to be known as a hero on par with Hercules (the reader is of course more than aware that he certainly succeeds in establishing himself as a legendary hero) – and his willingness to sacrifice – almost – anything to gain this longevity. For Patroclus motivations are more nobel, but no less ambitious: he wants the same for Achilles, but he wants – more modestly – their life together to continue in perpetuity. The way the two work together to secure Achilles his heroic claim is a study in expressions of love and sacrifice for love. I do think the rendering of Patroclus as (ultimately) the ‘greater’ Greek is fascinating as it sets up an alternate portrait of heroics: not battle success, but self-sacrifice, gentleness and, crucically, care for the vulnerable.
So yes. I resolve to get back to vacation, but let my eagerness to post this be evidence of the quality of the book and not (as is also likely the case) my inability to take a proper rest.
This book is getting a lot of play. Well done to Claire Cameron for having a hard working marketing team (it helps that Cameron’s first novel, Bear, was widely praised and sold a bunch of copies). I’ve seen ads for the book in all sorts of places, write-ups in Chatelaine, I got a free copy from Random House to review. Continue reading
You’ll probably read Lincoln in the Bardo because everyone is talking about it and because George Saunders is some kind of savant of literary genius who writes sentences that are so particular in their detail and yet so vast in their evocation of feeling that while reading you sort of stumble between the narrative itself and the awareness that you are reading the work of a master of language-to-mean. Not unlike my own opening run-on-sentence, right? Right. Continue reading
A few years ago I tried to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I made it 20 or 30 pages in and thought ‘meh,’ and gave up. So when my book club selected it, I was reluctant (sorry book club). And then I was chagrined because this is a terrific read. Sure you have to make it past the initial 30 pages (evidence if you’re ever looking for it that a book should be given a fair shot – whatever that might be – before quitting) and the initial conceit which takes repetition to become clear for the reader: our protagonist, Ursula, can die and be reborn in her same body/family/set of experiences. The novel explores the extent to which her actions can control or change the outcome of her life (and the limits of these choices – how and in what circumstances does she end up right back in the same troubled spot or… dead). There are a few instances where we turn our attention to how other people influence the outcome of our life, but usually this is cast in relation to how Ursula reacts and acts against the other. I did think this was a potential area of conceptual weakness as (to me anyway) it placed too much agency on the individual in relation to an other.
That said, the book does do a masterful job exploring the limits of individual agency in relation to society or community. Ursula is born in England in 1911 and so we witness through her experiences WWI and WWII, with far more attention given to WWII (which makes sense given her age and the narrative point of view). In setting her experience against these historical backdrops, the novel invites readers to play the thought experiment so often brought up in History classes of ‘what if X had changed’ (e.g. Hitler had been killed). (In the case of ‘what if Hitler had been killed the novel is less than subtle and just… plays out ‘what if Hitler had been killed’ in a manner that this reader found a bit too obvious for total enjoyment (in fact, C., at book club raised the idea that this may have been the creative entry point for the author that allowed her to imagine the life after life conceit).
Putting aside the conceptual questions of the novel, I also appreciated the quality of writing that is at once terrific and unpretentious. The exploration of gender is nuanced and provocative. I do think the novel lets questions of class slide easily by (particularly knowing that the post WWI period triggered a mass shift in class structure – the novel dodges by having our patriarch a ‘banker’ and so, presumably, immune to market fluctuation. That is another minor complaint – Hugh (the father) – also fights in WWI and comes back remarkably (okay, impossibly) unscathed in body and mind, perhaps a necessary characterization to allow him to continue to stand as an emotional cornerstone in the eyes of Ursula. But I digress).
All said, I’d encourage you to read the novel if only for the creativity of its plot and conceptual conceit. But I don’t have to leave it at that, I can also encourage you because of its great writing, character development and exploration of gender and history.
Oh and my other book club is taking up God in Ruins (Atkinson’s novel following Life After Life) next month, so stay tuned for review part the second.