Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a boy at Eton in 1905 was very heaven. Why? Because that was the year that Horace Vachell's novel The Hill: a Romance of Friendship was published, and obviously any Eton boy who knew anyone at Harrow, the Hill in question, would have hot-footed it to buy a copy (or got his name on the list for the one being passed around) in order to mercilessly take the mick out of any Harrow boys he met in the holidays. John Verney is in love with - sorry, conceives a sincere yearning friendship for - Harry "Caesar" Desmond, who is fated to die in the Boer War whither he has been lead by the desire to emulate devious, dodgy-anticidents, brilliant-at-sport "Demon" Scaife*. The novel isn't uninteresting - Vachell went to Harrow and the book is ultimately a love-letter to his alma mater** - but it suffers badly from the inability to make virtue attractive. The hero is something of a Nice Guy, hanging around hoping to grab the fought-over soul from the less deserving, whereas Scaife is an up-to-date Flashman, written by a man who evidently had some experience of the brilliant manipulator.
I still don't know why the protagonist is depicted on the front cover of my copy in his vest and pants.
The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller
Winner of this year's Orange Prize, I don't know what the competition was like, I can only assume it was remorse for Mary Renault's never having won the Booker. It isn't bad, it just isn't special - and the best bits are pure Renault pastiche, hence the entirely deceptive first chapter. As lareinenoire said someone had put it, it's been better written on the internet for ten years.
That said, I think I can sum up my main problem with this novel in 5 words: Achilles is not woobie. My copies of the Iliad**** are at my parents' house, but I have a good memory, and I am fairly sure that they are rather more "Sing, Goddess, the rage of Peleus' son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses," and less "Sing, Goddess, of the man-pain of Peleus' son Achilles and that he wasn't really keen on killing people". It is narrated by Patroclus (including after he's dead), and if you are interested in a rather better literary depiction of this relationship, I recommend Christopher Logue's translation War Music, and also Tony Robinson's Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All***** over a novel that contains the line "My hand reached, found the place of his pleasure."
"Place of his pleasure". Really.
Finally, it isn't easy to be a less sympathetic writer of female characters than much of Renault's output, but Miller manages it in spades.
I was going to go on to a third book, but it is getting late and I am running out of eye-rolling, so it must wait!
*You can tell he's the devil incarnate because he plays cards on a Sunday.
** The embarrassing sort that makes accidental readers cringe. I do wonder who it was aimed at***. I can't imagine most people who actually went to Harrow being quite so dewy-eyed, and even if they were, it's not exactly a big market, and the drooling gets a bit annoying.
***Beyond "adults". The references to Beastliness are cryptic, but present.
****In English, obviously. Ancient Greek was not on the school menu.
******Not joking. It's far better in its depiction of the tragedy of the story, and in giving meaning to the whole thing.