Madeline Miller follows up 'Song of Achilles' with another gorgeous novel steeped in mythology
In 2012, a Massachusetts teacher named Madeline Miller published The Song of Achilles, the hard-won work of a decade. The book went on to become an international best-seller, translated into more than 25 languages and awarded the U.K.’s prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction. It was a nifty trick for any first-time novelist, and even more so for its subject: ancient Greek myth, retold with an immediacy that mesmerized not just classics majors but countless readers who probably would have rather pulled out their own eyebrows than finish Homer’s The Iliad in high school.
With Circe, Miller returns to the same fertile, myrrh-scented source, though her lead here is a lesser goddess — or at least a less celebrated one: the first-born daughter of the sun titan Helios and his royal consort Perse. Circe’s pedigree is impeccable, but her perceived imperfections (a too-sharp chin, a reedy voice) are a disappointment from the start. Life among the gods is ruthless, and she has no real aptitude for the petty grudges, plots, and cruelties of dryads and river lords. Golden and gorgeously formed, they’re also vain, vicious, and easily bored, and their blood-soaked soap operas read like the gossipy intrigues of Versailles, or Dynasty for people who can’t die. (The idols eat and sleep strictly for pleasure; even their hangnails heal themselves.)
Noted mostly for the illicit sorcery that earned her exile to the island of Aiaia — and her gift for turning grown men into pigs — Circe’s tale lacks the sweeping arc and central romance of Achilles. Her narrative is more episodic, a string of feuds and love affairs occasionally bisected by myth’s greatest hits (Prometheus, the Minotaur, Helen of Troy). But Miller, with her academic bona fides and born instinct for storytelling, seamlessly grafts modern concepts of selfhood and independence to her mystical reveries of smoke and silver, nectar and bones. And if the Circe that emerges from her imagination isn’t exactly human — technically, she can’t be — she is divine. A-