Despite its different setting to Homer’s tale, it is an incredibly literal re-telling. At one point I was actually concerned that Hughes was going to attempt to do the catalogue of ships, but thankfully he spared us that. Sorry, Homer, but Book 2 of the Iliad will always be a struggle. As well as keeping some of the names close to their originals (Achilles/Achill, Patroclus/Pat, Helen/Nellie, Hector/Henry) there were other delightful nods to the myth. The pub where the IRA congregate is called The Ships, the SAS base is called Illiam. Those little references brought a smile to my face.
The narration of this novel stands out as one of its strongest features. Hughes plays into the oral tradition and as I was reading I felt like our nameless narrator was telling me the tale in person. This aspect meant that it felt similar to how it feels to read the Iliad, albeit with a different tone. From the first page, you can tell that this re-telling is going to work:
Fury. Pure fury. The blood was up. Lost the head completely.
What was the start of it? The whole wrecking match, that sent so many strong souls roaring down to hell, dogs chewing up the guts ground into the road, birds pecking at the splattered bits of their brains. The way London wanted it to go. The way it always is.
Here’s what. Pig and Achill fell out. The OC and the trigger man. Bad, bad news.
It also echoes that aspect of Homer that I love so much: bringing humanity to minor characters who are killed. War results in individuals dying, not just faceless numbers. This fact rings true no matter the time or place, which is perhaps why the Iliad is such a universal story. One chapter in particular stood out to me. We learn about one man called Barry Ross. We are told about his life and his personality, we get a grasp of who he is and some of his struggles. Then at the end of that short chapter, we get a graphic, Homeric description of his death:
He only saw the gun. Tried to duck. Too late. The bullet split the top of his nose between the eyes. It cracked his shiny teeth. The hard lead cut off his tongue at the root. It smashed his jaw. It gouged a ragged hole under his chin. The black leaked down behind his eyes.
It was quintessential Homer and I loved it.
One thing that didn’t quite work for me was the last few chapters. Hughes chose to do a very close re-telling, but the ending of the Iliad has some plot points that struggled to feel realistic within the setting of this book. Why was Achill so important? Why did Pat disguising himself in Achill’s clothing accomplish anything? Why has Achill even been allowed to have his temper tantrum and not fight for most of the book? Why is this one man feared so much? In a world without hero culture and where you couldn’t just say “actually think I’ll stop fighting for the IRA now, lads, catch ya later” it wasn’t quite believable.
The retrieval of Henry’s body did not have the impact that I expect of that scene. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the Iliad, but here it didn’t ring true. Hughes had built up such humanity throughout the novel and I was expecting the same to happen here. Normally this is the scene where you recognise the characters for the people that they are. It is the scene that epitomises what the Iliad is about. But here, it felt hollow.*
Overall though, this a wonderful retelling. I’d never have thought to put the Iliad into the Troubles, but once you start reading it you see just how well it works. By capturing the heart of Homer’s writing, Hughes explores the tragedy of this brutal conflict and breathes fresh life into an ancient tale.
* If you want a book that does do this scene justice, then read Ransom by David Malouf.