One of the books which impressed me most last year - and I hasten to add that it's one which I enjoyed to the utmost, too - was Madeline Miller's debut novel The Song of Achilles. It's been longlisted for The Orange Prize for Fiction, and I've got my fingers tightly crossed that it will be on tomorrow's shortlist because it is a very fine piece indeed. As the paperback edition has just been released, here's my post on it which explains, I hope, what makes this book so special:
If every first novel I read was as accomplished as this one is, it would say much for the future of publishing. The Song of Achilles is by Madeline Miller, a classicist who is also trained in drama, particularly in the adaptation of classical tales for a modern audience, and her background shows in her writing. Here is someone with a complete grasp of her material, but crucially that's teamed with the ability to present it in such a way that the reader is held in awe and admiration. It's a book of clean lines, spaciousness, an airy quality which forms a compelling contrast to the strong characters and dramatic events it portrays. This deft pairing of subject and craftsmanship is enormously impressive, and makes the book stand out as something original and fresh and beautiful (you won't be surprised to hear it's on my 'best of the year' list).
It's the story of Patroclus, exiled to Phthia and the court of King Peleus and his son Achilles. This awkward boy is befriended by Achilles and they become steadfast, constant companions, sent to the mountain home of the centaur Chiron to be tutored in the arts of war and medicine. When Helen of Sparta is abducted by Paris, son of Priam of Troy, the warriors of Greece are called upon to lay siege to Troy, and the two young men leave their peaceful life to take up arms. While Achilles has been trained for the battlefield, it's as a healer that Patroclus comes into his own, the long years of war set to test them both and reveal their fates.
A tender love story, a book not without humour, a moving re-telling of an archetypal tale, there is a scene in which Achilles' mother, the cruel, possessive sea goddess Thetis, appears to Patroclus in the early morning on the mountain Pelion: "The strangeness began as a prickling of my skin. First the quail went silent, then the dove. The leaves stilled, and the breeze died, and no animals moved in the brush. There was a quality to the silence like a held breath. Like the rabbit beneath the hawk's shadow ..."; the book itself has that feeling of stillness, imminence, foreboding. If this were a painting it would be an expanse of calm white grounding areas of intense, vivid colour, its simplicity drawing the eye, the skill of its making a magnetic charge; as a book, it's one that cannot be put down, its imaginative power lingering long.