Have you ever read a book that left you feeling completely stunned? It happens to me rarely, but when it does, I have this thing where I can’t do anything with my thoughts afterward. I can write about a good book, even a great one. I can write about a bad book, even a terrible one. But sometimes, a book completely knocks me out, and I can sit on it for days, weeks, even years without ever being able to articulate a damn thing about it. That’s what happened to me with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. You won’t find a review for it here, because I simply could not do it.
So, it was with excitement and strange terror that I returned to Miller once again for her highly anticipated and well-received follow-up, Circe. This one, like Song of Achilles, explores the life of one mythological character in great detail, imagining her life “behind the scenes” of the sparse details we get from classical storytelling. What Miller did so brilliantly in her first novel, exploring the more interesting elements of a well-known hero, Achilles and his lover, she does again here with Circe, who is treated to centuries’ worth of imagined biography.
I will say that I did not respond to Circe in the way that I responded to Song of Achilles. I’ve been wondering how much of this is simply biased, considering I am and was more interested in and more familiar with Achilles’s story in the first place. His story, and particularly told in the way Miller chose to tell it, through the eyes of his lover, is something I’ve always wanted to read. I wasn’t as familiar with the mythology of Circe, nor did her story draw me in as deeply or passionately. It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because I felt intimately connected to Song of Achilles, and not necessarily because the book was “better.” In fact, Miller here writes one of my favorite lines from any book I’ve ever read: “[T]here are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
Objectively speaking, though, I do think Achilles is a masterpiece, and that Circe is wonderfully well-done. The prose is not quite as interesting, this time, and the story does not move at the same pace. Indeed, because so much seems to happen in such a long period of historical time, but so shortly in narrative time, it sometimes feels oddly wind-swept and slightly disjointed, though never out of control. Miller knows what she is doing, and the story is powerful, interesting, and even joyful in its terrible sadness. The choice of Circe as protagonist is brilliant, too, because she is able to think and feel and interact with mortals in a way that Greek mythology does not allow of its gods, who are always (and to an extent must be) completely unconcerned with human needs, desires, pains, et cetera. (Rick Riordan has been playing with this, too, in his latest series re-imagining the god Apollo as a mortal teenager living in the contemporary era.)
To be fair, I find I’m still left spoiled by–wrecked by–Achilles. This might always be the case and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that my experience with it must have, on some level, colored my reading of Circe. That said, Circe is a compelling novel whose reception is well-deserved and easy to understand. It’s also a particularly powerful statement in our time, as we confront head-on issues of gender and power. Miller crafts a flawed and sometimes ignorant hero whom I knew little about and for whom I struggled, at first, to champion; in the end, she convinces me.
“In a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
“Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.”
“I thought: I cannot bear this world a moment longer. Then, child, make another.”
“I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open.”