Jenny Barden is an artist-turned-lawyer-turned-writer whose debut, Mistress of the Sea, will be published by Ebury Press, Random House, on 30 August. The novel is an epic Elizabethan romantic adventure based on Francis Drake's first great enterprise: the attack on the Spanish 'Silver Train' on the isthmus of Panama. Jenny lives in Hertfordshire with her long-suffering husband, a loving Labrador and a deadly Bengal cat, and she is the co-ordinator of this year's Historical Novel Society conference: HNSLondon12. Here she writes about Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, this year's winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction.
Jenny Barden on The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a book I read recently and adored in the sense that it left me bereft once I'd finished it, and for me, now, being left bereft by a book happens less and less frequently. Why did I so love this one? Because it struck a chord with my first joy in reading. It brought back memories of the myths and legends which first fired my imagination as a young child, filled my make-believe games with heroes and monsters, and made the world seem limitless on the cusp of invention and reality: a place of endless possibility.
The Iliad in all its various versions for children was a story I could never get enough of. Alas, those stories were read so young I cannot now recall the authors, but the illustrations are still there in my mind: of centaurs and Trojans, and Odysseus and the thousand ships; and then, when Rosemary Sutcliff's Black Ships before Troy came out, I relived that excitement in bedtime reading to my own children. Many more years passed before I began writing myself, something that came about quite by chance after I became fascinated by a painting hanging in the National Gallery - the portrait by Carel Fabritius - and a search to find out more about him led to my fictionalized retelling of his life story. That was my first book (since relegated to a bottom drawer) and it set me on the path I'm on now with my debut about to be published. Since this book and the next are set in the Elizabethan era, much of my reading over the last few years has been non-fiction about this period, so it was a great pleasure to lose myself in another time beyond the reach of historical certainty, and become re-acquainted with the ever-shifting super-characters of myth and antiquity.
The Song of Achilles enchanted me primarily because of its unpretentious and beautiful lyricism, because it was quintessentially a love story passionately told, and a great adventure on an epic scale. I was swept up in the way Madeline Miller brought the myth vividly alive, without over-cooked explanation or getting bogged down in classical references. You were there, as a reader, confronted by Thetis as if she really chilled the air you breathed, seeing the hand of Apollo reach down to pluck Patroclus from the walls of Troy, and Agamemnon slit his daughter's throat to appease the gods and later calmly eat his dinner. These are gods unhumanized - cruel, vibrant, magnificent and terrible - gods to make the world tremble.
This is a story of heroism and frailty, tragedy and immortality; but much more than that, it is an overwhelmingly poignant love story – a romance with a classical twist – a romance between men. This is where another kind of resonance struck home for me, reminding me of the writing of Gore Vidal which I devoured in early adolescence, beginning with Julian and leading to The City and the Pillar. I suppose it was because Vidal wrote movingly about physical attraction of the kind that is not quite allowed – exactly what I was experiencing at the time – that his writing made such an impression on me. I was very saddened to hear of his death just over a week ago. There falls another giant.
Yet the love story in The Song of Achilles is not without flaws. We're encouraged to identify with Patroclus (with his vaulting pride and prowess, Achilles is too much of a god to really engage with), but Patroclus is a pretty poor hero. He doesn't look very appealing, he's not much good at anything apart from tending wounds and being loyal to Achilles, he doesn't like fighting, and his treatment of Briseis is not at all attractive. All in all he's a bit of a moody wimp (though, intriguingly, it's fairly clear from the sensitively described sex in the book that Patroclus takes the male role in his physical relationship with Achilles). So this is a book which I enjoyed despite the lack of a character I could truly empathize with. That shouldn't have happened, but it did. Why? I think the answer is that what captivated me was the way Patroclus felt - not who he was, but how he loved: completely, selflessly, to the limit of endurance and beyond; at the end that moved me to tears.
That's how we should all love, isn't it?
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]