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Book review

‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

“The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller

“The Song of Achilles,’’ the first novel by Madeline Miller, is a retelling of the Trojan War and homage to ‘‘The Iliad,’’ but above all, it’s a love story.

In ‘‘The Iliad,’’ Achilles’ grief and rage over the death of his companion, Patroclus, draws the great warrior back to battle; he’s determined to avenge the murder by killing Hector. His fierce devotion to Patroclus is clear, yet the nature of their bond is open to interpretation. Scholars have long debated this. In Miller’s version, their relationship begins as friendship and evolves into something explicitly homosexual.

Miller, who lives in Cambridge and has degrees in Latin and ancient Greek, approaches her subject, aptly, as a rigorous scholar. Yet what might have been a stilted, tedious retelling of a classical myth instead reads like a modern-day soap opera filled with family tensions, romantic suffering, betrayal, and sex.

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As is true of the best books of its kind — such as Elizabeth Cook’s brief, masterful 2001 novel, ‘‘Achilles’’ — Miller’s story respects its source material and also transcends it. ‘‘The Song of Achilles’’ is powerful, inventive, passionate, and beautifully written.

Patroclus serves as narrator, describing himself even early on as having been a terrible disappointment to his father, King Menoitius: ‘‘I was not fast. I was not strong. I could not sing. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly.’’ At the age of 9, Patroclus is pushed by his father into wooing Helen, daughter of King Tyndareus, because it would be useful to have her in their family. ‘‘Do not disgrace us,’’ Menoitius says to him, ever the supportive father.

If Patroclus is not yet ‘‘gay,’’ he is well aware of his lack of interest in being Helen’s suitor, the thought of which leaves him numb. After disappointing his father’s expectations, things get worse for Patroclus when he accidentally kills a boy while defending himself. He’s promptly exiled to another kingdom. ‘‘In exchange for my weight in gold, they would rear me to manhood,’’ he recalls. ‘‘I would have no parents, no family name, no inheritance.’’

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An orphan at the age of 10, Patroclus lands in Phthia, where he will meet his soul mate, Achilles, the handsome son of a sea nymph, Thetis (who comes to despise Patroclus) and the mortal King Peleus. Achilles regards Patroclus warily at first, while Patroclus can’t help noticing that the other boys crowd Achilles ‘‘like dogs in their eagerness, tongues lolling.’’

As the author traces the deepening of their relationship (and the boys become inseparable), she captures the kind of intense, dizzying ache particular to first love: ‘‘Hands, smooth and strong, reaching to touch me. I know those hands. But even here, behind the darkness of my eyelids, I cannot name the thing I hope for. During the days I grow restless, fidgety. But all my pacing, singing, running does not keep them at bay. They come, and they will not be stopped.’’

Of course, this is a tale that ends in sorrow. Patroclus, told by aprophet that Achilles will die first, admits, ‘‘I did not plan to live after he was gone.’’

Although familiarity with ‘‘The Iliad’’ makes for an enhanced reading (and appreciation of) ‘‘The Song of Achilles,’’ it isn’t essential. Miller has written an epic yet accessible narrative of political drama, war, and sacrifice, while also crafting an intimate love story. In time, it may prove to be a classic of its own.

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Carmela Ciuraru, editor of several anthologies and author of ‘‘Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms,’’ can be reached at cciuraru@gmail.com.