Archive for September, 2012

A Song Worth the (re)Singing?

Ten of us arrived at The Barrels Alehouse on a beautiful September evening to discuss ‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller.  The cover blurb for this 2012 Orange Prize winner reads:

‘Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their differences, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper – despite the displeasure of Achilles’s mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess. But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear.’

Although most of us finished the book and found it an enjoyable read, opinions were wide-ranging, running the gamut from ‘underwhelmed’ to ‘captivated’.

Jill felt that the writing lacked power, particularly in the way the gods were depicted; she wanted them to be ‘bigger’. Glynis absolutely adored the book and described it as a ‘paeon to love’.  Paula too really engaged with the book, finding it a page-turner, interesting and imaginative. She found the descriptions of ancient Greece convincing, particularly the encapsulation of the long, hot summer days.  Margaret thought the ending was ‘soppy’ but enjoyed the Troy section and Achilles’ engagement with Agamemnon.  Rose also disliked the ending and found the style annoyingly whimsical.  We all agreed that the writing was, in the main, lyrical rather than powerful although there were exceptions, such as the human sacrifice scene, which was shocking and visceral.

Here are some thoughts from other book group members.

Helen: I did enjoy the book.  I thought it an interesting and entertaining subject, and particularly liked the mixture of mortals and gods interacting seamlessly!  I thought the characters were well drawn and found it easy to enter the writer’s world.

Barbara: I loved lots of things about this novel.  Had I read the rest of the Orange shortlist first, I might have picked a couple of others as being even better. But I still think the judges were right to praise Miller’s original take on the Achilles story, her lyrical language and her inventiveness in dealing with some of the trickier issues such as the death of the main characters and the co-existence of humans, goddesses and gods.

Although some readers criticised the author for straying from some of the source material, this was not an issue for me. I believe that writers should be able to take myths and fairytales and do with them what they will, including changing elements of a familiar story or legend. I also did not read the novel in the context of what had gone before, so it was of no concern to me that some reviewers compared Miller with earlier writers and it did not influence my reading or enjoyment.

I found the characters well-drawn and plausible, although extremely modern in their sensibilities.  Again, this did not worry me. As modern writers/readers, we cannot genuinely know how people in the far past felt and how similar or otherwise their emotions were to our own, and I am much more worried by writers who claim to be ‘authentic’ in this regard. We are always looking at history through a modern-day prism and I felt Miller was ‘up-front’ about this.  I found the writing pleasurable and often poetic and the narrative was compelling. Although there were some rather breathless passages, I do feel that the author captured something about young, naive love and obsession.

The Independent described the novel as ‘Greek history for idiots.’ This makes the reviewer look like an idiot – it’s not meant to be history but a work of fiction. I will read more of Miller’s work.

David: I thought that the comment on the blurb on the back of the book comparing this to the work of Mary Renault did the author no favours. Renault handled Greek myths and history much better and was a livelier and more engaging writer. One common feature is that Renault also used first person narratives but did it better. I didn’t ‘mind’ the book and finished it but I thought elements were thin. The reality of the Gods is fine by me and I am quite OK with any reworking of a myth or historical narrative of this sort but Thetis didn’t so much seem divine as the mother from hell from the point of view of son’s partner, a well known character in reality. The one passage that hit me was the sacrifice of Iphegenia. The book got better when they got to Troy and Achilles became more of a character but if you like this sort of thing then I recommend anything by Renault as a much better read, not to mention any decent translation of the Iliad.

Martin: I could not rate this as one of my favourite reads. I felt that any enjoyment came from the original Greek tale and that the angst Patroclus felt in his love of Achilles was irrelevant and to put it mildly BORING. It has reminded me to go back to the original some time. The most succesful part was to drop the daft idea of Achilles being protected everywhere but his heel. Although this gave us a very popular phrase, I find the idea of the goddess protecting Achilles with her powers and then withdrawing them when she was spited somehow  more acceptable in spite of both being fairy stories.

Ann: I found the narrative voice engaging and wanted to keep reading despite already knowing that it ‘ends in tears’.  I particularly enjoyed the section dealing with Patroclus’ boyhood (increasingly alienated and isolated as a result of the lack of paternal love) and his life-saving, transformational friendship with Alexander.  Like most book group members, I also enjoyed the Troy section and the exploration of free will versus fate as the lovers struggle against the ‘hero’ destiny written for Achilles.  However I was less convinced by what I felt was a soft-focus, romanticised depiction of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles and I also kept being brought up short when actual centaurs and living, breathing gods were introduced into a narrative with an otherwise naturalistic style and contemporary feel. I am still not sure what to make of that juxtaposition; maybe, when the author chose to end the book in the Afterlife, she then needed to make everything else about the Greek belief system a reality.  I am also still undecided as to whether Miller has achieved what she feels an adaptation should do: ‘stand brilliantly on its own, while inspiring a fresh look at the original.’

As usual, we had an excellent discussion.  We ended the meeting with book recommendations from members who have been doing a great deal of summer reading:

‘Half-Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan

‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett

‘Mud Woman’ by Joyce Carol Oates

‘Canada’ by Richard Ford

‘Stone Cutter’ by Camilla Lackberg

Any book from the ‘Inspector Montalbano’ series By Andrea Camilleri

‘Bring Out the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

‘Philida’ by Andre Brink

‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters

‘Ramshackle’  by Elizabeth Reeder

‘Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck

‘Chocolate Cake with Hitler’ by Emma Craigie

‘22:11:63’ by Steven King

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About the book group

The Berwick Book Group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the First Class Passenger Lounge on the platform of Berwick Train Station at 6.30pm.

If you would like more information about what the group is reading, please visit www.newwritingnorth.com/submit/join-berwick-book-group.

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