Book Reviews: Song of Achilles and The Flight of Gemma Hardy

(I keep meaning to get to my fashion post but haven’t cobbled it together yet. Why writing about shopping should be harder than writing book reviews I don’t know.)

I adore historical fiction, and I’ve just read these two amazing novels that are revamped classic stories. So there’s a theme here today.

Ancient historical fiction stands in a class of its own because there is a lot of scope for creativity. If you’re going to write about the Tudor era you’re dealing with a period that is quite well documented, whereas in a story set in ancient Greece you can go nuts because there are so many blanks to be filled in. We just don’t know that much about the ancient world. I read an amazing book about the Minoans recently and there is a theory that they were wiped out by a tsunami – and conclusions about this were partially drawn from evidence from the 2004 tsunami.  (The Lost Empire of Atlantis by Gavin Menzies, if you’re interested.) So we’re still learning about the ancients.

There are so many thrilling stories by ancient Greek writers like Homer, Aesop, Hesiod (we’re not even absolutely positive it was them, but we think so). But their renditions (I’m talking about the English translations and I know some are better than others) don’t have the depth of characterization and richness of description that modern writers employ when telling the same tales. On the one hand, everyone knows the story so the plot is pretty much laid out already and the reader can anticipate the story. But I always found something lacking in the original tales. I know this is totally subjective, but it seems to me that you have to extrapolate a lot from very little when you’re reading old Homer. On the bright side, you have to use your imagination, and then when these stories are retold there’s a lot of leeway for the writers to get creative.

 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is one of the best retellings of the Iliad that I have read, and I’ve read every one that I can get my hands on. It’s from the point of view of Patroclus, and is essentially a characterization of Achilles, and a story of the love between Patroclus and Achilles. It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, and – this isn’t a spoiler because everyone knows already – the grief expressed by Achilles at Patroclus’ death was absolutely real and heart-wrenching. (I got very weepy.) There is also exposition into the reasons for some of the baffling things Achilles did during the Trojan War, from the perspective of his closest friend and lover; very illuminating. I enjoyed Miller’s characterizations of the other characters in the Iliad as well; the scene where Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia in order to coax good sailing winds out of a recalcitrant god is shocking and moving. Overall, as a retelling of the Iliad it’s so convincing that it’s become my new “reality” of Homer’s story. (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon has become my “reality” of the Arthurian legend. It just makes sense!) It’s beautifully written and wonderful fun to read.

I’m slightly concerned that my kids’ idea of mythology will be ineluctably tainted by their early exposure to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and Jason series. The books are great fun, and Justin’s enjoying them too, but Riordan really takes the original myths by the scruff of the neck and gives them a good shake. Result? Unrecognizable. I liked the myths as they were and would love a Madeline Miller rendition of them, where the plot line is followed but the story is enriched by description and insightful characterization that enhance but do not contradict the original.

I need to rush out and get more Margot Livesey, because I enjoyed The Flight of Gemma Hardy so much. It’s another retelling – the Jane Eyre story, set in the 1950s and 60s in northern Scotland. Yes, you can improve on the original, may the ghost of the Brontës not strike me dead. I actually preferred this to Jane Eyre, yes I did! The original is wonderful but I just love the details, the inner monologues, the characterizations – in Livesey’s hands this story really comes to crackling life. I know Jane Eyre is plenty lively but I have a taste for this kind of writing and I preferred Livesey’s take. I know, I feel rather apostate writing that but it’s just my opinion and Jane is immortal anyway, she doesn’t need my approval. Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea was also an interesting take on the Jane Eyre story – from the point of view of Rochester’s first wife. That was pretty lively too.

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