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—and even 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.”