3 new novels grapple with questions of mortality

Three new works of fiction address themes of mortality, including a ghost – in an Anne Tyler novel.

3. 'The Song of Achilles,' by Madeline Miller


Next to the daughter-killing Agamemnon, Achilles was my least favorite character in “The Iliad.” He alternated between sulking in his tents and slaughter, and seemed just a tad obsessed with his own honor.

The greatest fighter among the Greeks, Achilles famously withdraws from the field of battle after Agamemnon insults him by taking back a “war prize,” the girl Briseis. (Somehow, no one ever bothers to ask her which invading murderer of her family she'd like to live with.) Without their preternatural killing machine, things go badly for the Greeks, with thousands of them dying because of Achilles' miffed feelings.

Also, the whole heel thing frankly struck the teenaged me as weak. Achilles spine, sure. Achilles carotid artery, absolutely. But a heel?

How accomplished is Madeline Miller's debut novel? Darned if she didn't make me like the guy in Song of Achilles.

Miller, a scholar of Latin and Ancient Greek, brings a remarkably conversational style to her Homeric retelling and manages to inject urgency and suspense into a tale whose outcome is already a foregone conclusion. Miller keeps the gods in her retelling, unlike other recent reworkings, such as Allesandro Baricco's “An Iliad” and the movie “Troy,” which jettisoned the supernatural element of Homer's epic as unappealing to modern sensibilities.

Her narrator is Patroclus, Achilles' companion, whose death sparks a grief so great that the warrior returns to fight. Ordinarily, Patroclus is a minor player whose one act of heroism gets him killed.

Here, he's a prince who was exiled when he was 10 for accidentally killing another boy. Always a disappointment to his ambitious father, Patroclus is sent to live with King Peleus, Achilles' dad, and Achilles takes the lonely boy under his perfectly formed wing. The two grow up together and are educated by the centaur, Chiron, in the novel's loveliest idyll.

Eventually, they fall in love, much to the displeasure of Achilles' mother, Thetis, a sea nymph here reworked into a terrifyingly otherworldly creature who is simultaneously the world's most ambitious stage mother.

Thetis is determined that Achilles will be not just a hero, but a god, and Patroclus does not at all fit into her plans for world domination.

In Miller's version of events, Achilles goes off to war knowing that a prophecy has predicted his own death after he kills the Trojan hero, Hector. The war's 10-year length is seen partly as the teenager's way of buying time. “What has Hector ever done to me?” he asks throughout the novel's second half, an inside joke with Patroclus that ultimately takes on a terrible poignancy.

The characters of the Iliad are all seen through Patroclus's eyes, with the wily Odysseus, usually my favorite, too clever for the young man's own good. The Greeks' leader Agamemnon is, of course, still a Grade-A jerk. (I'm not sure even Miller could revise him to be more appealing.)

Ordinarily – although my Greek grandmother would disown me if she heard me say it – my sympathies lie with the Trojans, trying to defend their homes from merciless invaders. But so compelling is the “Song of Achilles,” I barely spared a thought for Priam, Cassandra, Hector, and the others.

3 of 3