Friday, 12 September 2014

Greek slant

I loved The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s novel about a group of classics students who take their lessons in antiquity a little too far. I read an interview with Tartt where she recommended Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles so I’ve been sitting in the garden in the last of the summer sunshine completely absorbed in this novel.

It’s the story of the love affair between Achilles and Patroclus, boyhood friends who train under the centaur Chiron and then fight in the Trojan wars. Achilles is the son of the sea goddess Thetis who is a terrifying character with an extreme aversion to Patroclus:

'She was taller than I was, taller than any woman I had ever seen. Her black hair was loose down her back and her skin shone luminous and impossibly pale, as it if drank light from the moon. She was so close I could smell her, sea water laced with dark brown honey. I did not breathe.. I did not dare.'

The novel is narrated by Patroclus in simple language but it’s a thrilling page-turner so descriptive you can almost see the blue Aegean sea. My knowledge of Greek mythology is patchy to say the least so the sacrifice of the young bride Iphigenia came as a shock and the great river god Scamander rising from Troy’s creamy gold river covered in weeds with water pouring off his back to block Achilles from crossing was brilliantly written.
I also very much enjoyed The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes. It’s the story of Alex, a young woman who has lost her finance in tragic circumstances which gradually emerge as the novel progresses. To ease her grief her kindly former lecturer offers her a job teaching drama therapy to a small group of troubled teenagers who have been excluded from mainstream school because of their behaviour.
Alex is fond of Greek tragedy and introduces the students to the plays Oedipus, Alcestis and the Oresteia. Unfortunately, one the students develops an obsession with Alex and starts to enact a revenge tragedy of her own. To mirror this theme the novel is told in five acts. It’s beautifully written, dark and thrilling and you can’t help smiling at the repartee of the students who may have challenging behaviour but they are as sharp as tacks.
Some new literary fiction to look forward to this month - Outline by Rachel Cusk and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Let’s hope the September sunshine continues a little longer for us all!


JoAnn said...

I loved The Secret History, too, but have been resisting Song of Achilles because I feel like I don't know Greek mythology well enough. Even passed on it as a kindle day deal... perhaps it's time to reconsider.

Anbolyn said...

I LOVED Song of Achilles and can't wait until Madeline Miller writes a new book. I thought it was so beautiful. I also enjoyed The Secret History and have The Amber Fury (called The Furies here in the States) checked out from the library. I wasn't sure I would give it a go but now I certainly will.

Kat said...

Nicola, I started reading Song of Achilles a few years ago and didn't finish it, but as it did win the Orange Prize and you have good taste I should try it again.

I've heard a lot about The Amber Fury here in the States and may look into it.

Yup, I was a classics major. :)

Bellezza Mjs said...

Oh, oh, oh! I love love love The Secret History, and how fascinating to read a recommendation by Donna Tartt herself in this post. I've not heard of this book, and like JoAnn (but unlike Henry) I fear for my lack of Greek and Latin knowledge. At any rate, I shall look for it immediately. Thanks, Nicola.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

I'm not familiar with The Secret History, but I'm thinking I need to read it!

StuckInABook said...
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Ellen said...

I loved both these books, the Madeleine Miller one was particularly good, very moving too. My daughter has just started a Classics degree and loved The Song of Achilles. Natalie Haynes has a regular column in The Guardian and is a very good writer. I'm all for popularising the Classics!

Sunday Taylor said...

So happy to hear that you enjoyed The Song of Achilles! I bought it when it came out but haven't read it yet. I did read The Secret History recently and loved it!!! Also just finished Ian McEwan's recent book The Children Act and it may be my favorite book by him. Absolutely riveting and so beautifully written.

GretchenJoanna said...

You mention that you like to receive book recommendations; I wonder if you have read Jetta Carleton's The Moonflower Vine? It was quite an experience for me, and another book that, as soon as I got to the last page, I started reading from the beginning again. I didn't care for her one other novel half as much.

Vintage Reading said...

JoAnn, SoA is very enjoyable with only the most basic knowledge of Greek mythology which is all I have!

Anbolyn, I hope Madeline Miller writes another novel, too. I also have a guilty pleasure - I love the Percy Jackson books and films!

Kat, while I was reading it I did wonder if classics experts would find it as enjoyable as the average reader as the style is very simple. Do posts your thoughts if you re-read SoA.

Bellezza, I love book recommendations from my favourite authors. I would never have discovered Elizabeth Strout if Anne Tyler had not recommended one of her novels in an interview.

Holly, hi, it's a great book, a bit on the dark side, but then, so is Harry Potter!

Ellen, I do hope your daughter enjoys studying the Classics. My daughter has just started a Language and Literature degree. I'd love to be a student all over again!

Sunday, I'll give the McEwen a go if you recommend it. I should read more male writers!

GretchenJoanna, finishing a book and then wanting to start at the beginning again is the best possible recommendation! Will check it out, thank you.

Mrs Ford said...

Sorry, very late with my comments on this one. I was inspired by your post to give The Song of Achilles a go, and am so glad I did; I found it absolutely gripping. Some critics seem to have been a bit snooty about it, and there was perhaps the odd infelicity along the way, but I loved it. And having done a Classics degree (many years ago....), I'm delighted to find the Classics becoming so fashionable!

Amy said...

I loved Song of Achilles but haven't made it through The Secret History yet. It's in a pile somewhere :)