Achilles - Elizabeth Cook The first part of this novella (107 pages in my edition) almost - almost - had me sympathizing with Achilles, and then he goes and murders and rapes Penthiseleia:

"Now he pins her down, all his hurt, unmet tenderness turned to indignation. He bends back her fingers to make her release the flint and she makes those fingers her weapons, tearing his face, stabbing at eyes. His knee bent across her ribs, holding her down, he covers her face with one hand, the heel of the other hand cradling the back of her skull, and pushes. He feels her body trying to arch beneath him, the resistance of her head as she struggles to free it. He pushes on. Pushes and then, with practised economy, twists. He holds her a little longer. Waiting for the turmoil of the body to quieten. Waiting for it to be over." (p. 53)


With one exception, all of the sexual encounters in the book are rape scenes: Peleus and Thetis, Achilles and Penthiseleia, Helen and Theseus (and, by implication, all of her lovers). The one exception is when Achilles is hiding at the court of Lycomedes as a girl (Pyrrha), and he and Deidamia, Lycomedes' daughter, carry on an affair. It's the one encounter where there is mutual tenderness.

I'm free associating here, but that just now brings up the absence of any homosexual relationships. Explicit ones, anyway. Achilles' great love for Patroclus is evident but any sexual element is buried fairly deep in the prose.

Perhaps there's a message here that sex/love between equals (man-to-man, woman-to-pretend-woman) is tender, giving, etc. - all the things modern Western idealism makes it out to be - and that sex between unequals (man-to-woman) is inherently violent rape?

The third part of the book takes a radical departure from the first two parts. The first part sketches the life of Achilles until he's killed by Paris; the second part tells about the aftermath - primarily the slaughter of the Trojans. Part three takes us to the life of John Keats as he contemplates the life of Achilles and his death. When I first read this part, I was nonplussed. What in the world was Cook doing? But in reading some of the other GR reviews, I think I see what the purpose may have been: Keats as a modern-day Achilles; a kinder, gentler hero whose star burned bright and brief but whose relative immortality is assured.

Chalk it up to my prosaic mind but I wasn't bothered by Cook's occasional resort to crudity or mundanity (as were other GR reviewers). In fact, I consider that some of the best parts of the novella:

"Ajax and Menelaus have rescued the poor, heavy, mangled body.... Achilles washes the dear flesh. He tells Patroclus he will not sleep till Hector is dead. Nor will he eat.

Achilles of the loud war cry lets out his war cry...

and the Achaeans regroup. Each man of them merry and agile for war.

The Trojans shit themselves.
(p. 33)


Or the scene where Thetis is collecting Achilles' bones and she's forced to balance his skull with her chin, like someone carrying a large load of laundry or a pile of books:

"It is Machaon, the surgeon, who follows Thetis into the heart of the ash-field, who lifts the skull of Achilles from the dust. He wipes the dust from it and gazes with humble reverence into the dark hollows that housed the eye-pits. He walks over to Thetis. Gently he sets the skull down at the top of her bundle of bones.

Like the jar which Hephaestus gave her she has to hold it in place with her chin to keep it from rolling off."
(p. 69)


I give it but two stars because, while I liked it well enough, it was passionless for me. Too dry. An academic exercise more than a novel written from the heart.