An intriguing retelling of the Trojan War story

2011-11-09 00:00

ANY novel that has a glowing tribute by Ann Patchett on its back cover deserves serious attention; and this spellbinding first novel is such a one. It takes a brave soul to follow in the 3000-year-old footsteps of Homer and his Iliad and to retell the Trojan War story, but Miller, a young American classicist, has found the courage.

Like Homer, she has narrrowed her focus to only one aspect of the story (though the bigger picture always looms in the background). In her case, the focus is on the intense and famous relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, from its boyhood beginnings to its end among the shades of the dead.

There has been much scholarly and other debate about this friendship. Was it an erotic same-sex relationship, or was it the non-sexual but equally intense bond that is known to develop between soldiers — buddies — under the deadly conditions of wartime? Miller assumes the former, and her treatment of the inter-male intimacies is both sensual and sensitive.

A tricky challenge for a novelist tackling Homeric material is: what to do about the gods, who are actual players in the action of Homer’s poems? Miller (again like Homer) simply portrays them as real presences. Achilles’s sea-goddess mother Thetis, in particular, is a powerful and bone-­chilling figure who repeatedly slices into the human scene at critical moments.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of the novel is its narrator, the self-effacing Patroclus, who lives under the long shadow of the godlike Achilles, and loves it. But increasingly, Patroclus shows the depths of his “merely” human worth, and the destructive absoluteness of Achilles’s murderous ­warrior-prowess and excessive pride, by contrast, come to seem deplorable. And along with the male lovers there is the gentle and softly courageous captive Briseis, who ­becomes the third corner of a strangely poignant triangle.

The novel (in its way strongly anti-war) is rich with moments of magic, horror (its battle scenes are chaotic and shocking), sweetness and heartache. Miller’s descriptions are unfailingly graphic, painted with assured and often lovely brushstrokes, her prose sweet-flowing but economical.

An original and humane re­handling of material from the very bedrock of Western literature.

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