ACHILLES

Elizabeth Cook, Author . Picador USA $16 (128p) ISBN 978-0-312-28884-6

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.

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 02/01/2002
Genre: Fiction
Paperback - 128 pages - 978-0-312-31110-0
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