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Achilles: A Novel

Achilles: A Novel

4.0 3
by Elizabeth Cook

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This powerful, passionate, and beautifully crafted retelling of the epic tale of Achilles re-creates Homer's fated hero in a new and striking reality. Born of the Sea nymph Thetis by the mortal King Peleus, and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks' greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters&


This powerful, passionate, and beautifully crafted retelling of the epic tale of Achilles re-creates Homer's fated hero in a new and striking reality. Born of the Sea nymph Thetis by the mortal King Peleus, and hidden as a girl until Odysseus discovers him, Achilles becomes the Greeks' greatest warrior at Troy. Into his story comes a cast of fascinating characters—among them, Hector, Helen, Penthiseleia the Amazon Queen, and the centaur Chiron; and finally John Keats, whose writings form the basis of a meditation on the nature of identity and shared experience.

An unforgettable and deeply moving work of fiction, Achilles is also an affirmation of the story's enduring power to reach across centuries and cultures to the core of our imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Margot Livesey
Everything in this novel, except the number of pages, is larger than life, and in reading it we are returned to our own lives with a sense of larger possibility. This bright, fierce book reminds us that art can be consoling and that, however grievous, however inevitable our losses, we do not bear them alone.
The Boston Globe
Inspired...Cook points up the primal quality of Achilles' story, so that we see its tragedy...as utterly universal.
San Francisco Chronicle
Cook imbues the legend of Achilles with startling urgency and beauty. Erudite, passionate and not the least bit pretentious... Cook has impressively transformed the legend of Achilles into something entirely her own, a thoroughly modern study of masculinity, mortality and honor.
The Atlantic Monthly
[A] poetic masterpiece....unfailingly modern: swift, cinematic, sexually explicit, and ravishingly beautiful.
Publishers Weekly
With this brilliantly conceived retelling of the plight of one of Homer's heroes, British writer Cook demonstrates the same skill that has made her poetry and examinations of Renaissance literature so wonderfully memorable. Cleaving closely to the Odyssey but embellishing her tale with sharply imagined creative flourishes, Cook navigates the rise and fall of the powerful Greek warrior Achilles, tragic hero of the Trojan War. Voluptuously chronicling the warrior's youth, Cook tells how he is dipped in the immortalizing waters of the river Styx (except for the legendary heel) and spends his youth cloaked as a girl. As he rises to power, Achilles encounters a bevy of gods and mystical figures, each imparting ruminations on fate, mortality and the tragic eventualities of love and war. Death the slaying of Troy's champion soldier, Hector; the 12 gruesome days spent parading his corpse via chariot; and Achilles' own demise is the work's central theme, but Cook also brilliantly narrates a series of passionate encounters, describing, for example, the exquisitely athletic fusion of King Peleus and Achilles' sea-nymph mother, Thetis. Cook's text is more lush prose poem than traditional narrative, its concentrated, intense verbiage exhibiting agony and beauty simultaneously. The heady brew is made even richer by Cook's brave incorporation of an episode from the life of poet John Keats in the surprising final chapter, which suggests a curious affinity between the prophetic writer and the slain hero. At 128 pages, Cook's tale is tightly woven, and this brevity makes for an extreme reading experience. The genre of retellings of classical epics will surely be reinvigorated by this slim, exceptional interpretation of the heroic fable of Achilles. (Feb.) Forecast: Rave reviews in Britain heralded the appearance of this potent work, and curiosity on these shores should be whetted by the book's haunting jacket, which features a massive ancient wooden gate in stark black and white. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
New Yorker
This forceful re-creation of the life of Achilles sacrifices nothing to modernity: gods mate violently with mortals, ghosts feast on sheep's blood, and Achilles rages and slays, unburdened by psychology. At the same time, this brief, intense novel is unmistakably modern in intent, turning a war epic into a meditation on the limits of human perfectibility. Fragments of keen, almost carnal prose have the cumulative effect of a requiem: in Hades, the dead resent the living, who are always eating, "their tongues fossicking among the bones"; on the battlefield, Achilles greets Hector with the words "We meet as animals," and his enemy sees "his life spread out before him like a giant sheet in the sun."
Kirkus Reviews
British writer and scholar Cook offers up an inconsistently satisfying curiosity in this little slip of a debut novel retelling the story of Achilles' life. At times the author catches an effect that's just right-that vivifies, that is, or expands in new words the reader's impression-memories of the classics themselves, mainly the Homeric epics. What it's like for Achilles in the Afterworld, for example (this just before the still-living Odysseus visits him): "You know the living are up there, driving your horses, ploughing your fields, handling your bowls. Eating. The living are always eating; their tongues fossicking among the bones"). Less satisfying, though, is her unimaginative decision to adhere to a narrative view of the gods as "magic" beings, as in the story of Achilles' birth, when Thetis dips him in the Styx ("‘Immortality,' she said, ‘I'm burning away [his] mortal parts in the fire of this river'"). One craves not such schoolroom retellings but descriptions instead of real people and of the actual human traits that gave rise to the myths. And yet, when she does try doing it this way, Cook often limps and loses her ear, as in her implying of Helen's beauty by berating the craven beastliness of the men who lust for her ("their cheers were in Paris' ears as he fucked her. He needed others to want her to want her"). Achilles' youthful sexual joining with Deidamia is more successfully told, as is his deadly encounter with Penthiseleia, the Amazon queen. Possibly most captivating is the chapter on Chiron, the wise centaur. The closing section-about Keats's aesthetic-emotional relatedness to antiquity-is quite beautifully done, though it remains more envoi than part of the whole-andeven here one's sense of being in capable poetic hands is shaken by Cook's curious way elsewhere in the book of resorting to absurdly blunt effects like "AAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEE!!!" or "QUICK! / CLOSE THE GATE. ACHILLES IS COMING." A mix.

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Meet the Author

Elizabeth Cook has published short fiction and poetry as well as scholarly works on Renaissance literature, and has also written and presented for television and the theatre. Formerly a university lecturer, she has edited the works of John Keats. She lives in London.

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Achilles 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This short novel was a surprise--one I had tucked in the back of my bookshelf for awhile. The sensual writing in the first few pages makes it a books you can't put down: you can see the two rivers, one bright and one black, taste the crisp, salted fish, smell the smoke from the sacrificial offerings, etc. Cook sets a solemn tone from the very beginning that is just right for the retelling of the Achilles tale. The Keats connection could have been better incorporated, but it helps to make her point about the timeless connections of the human spirit.
Dierckx More than 1 year ago
There are two kinds of novels about Antiquity: the historical novels like 'Quo Vadis' and 'I, Claudius' and novels about a character from mythology. I prefer the latter because there is more room for fantasy and imagination. In the 1970's the German writer Christa Wolf wrote some outstanding novels about mythology like 'Medea' and 'Cassandra'(the latter translated in English). And now there is 'Achilles' by Elisabeth Cook. It's a wilful and sensuel novel, about Achilles, one of the Greek commanders who besieged Troy. Peleus, his mortal father, begets him with Thetis, a sea-goddess. (A whole chapter is used to describe a fierce battle between a common man and an immortal woman - it's not very likely he should win but he does).When Achilles was born, Thetis washed him in the river Styx, which made him invulnerable except for a spot at his heel where his mother held him. (Near the end of the Trojan war, Paris kills Achilles by shooting an arrow in his heel) . E.Cook gives a personal interpretation about Achilles'heel: she explains why it's the fault of his father instead of Thetis' fault.('Blame it on the father!', I've heard it before). These things make the novel worthwile reading: it's not the mythological story-almost everybody knows it-but the descriptions, events and interpretations imagined by E.Cook. One of the highlights of this story is the description of the Trojan river ( or river-god if you like ) Skamander who tries in vain to drown Achilles. In the last part of the novel, the poet John Keats makes his appearance. Achilles and John Keats had both red hair it seems, but that's not enough to explain the appearance of a completely superfluous personage. Though Keats spoils the fun a little (he's so out of place!) it's a novel interesting enough for those who like Antiquity as the background of a story
Anonymous More than 1 year ago