First-time author Madeline Miller wins last-ever Orange Prize
American author Madeline Miller was awarded the Orange Prize for fiction at a ceremony in London on Wednesday. It was for Miller's first book, the novel "The Song of Achilles," and marked the occasion of the last Orange Prize, worth about $47,000.
This month it was announced that telecom company Orange would cease sponsoring the 17-year-old prize, which is awarded to a female author for a work of fiction written in English.
Newcomer Miller was the dark horse in this year's race. In the surprise win, she beat out prior Orange Prize winner Ann Patchett, octogenarian Cynthia Ozick, Man Booker Prize finalist Esi Edugyan, Brit Georgiana Harding and Irish Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright. They posed some serious literary competition.
Miller, however, won over the judges with "The Song of Achilles," told by Patroclus, a peripheral but significant figure in "The Illilad." Click here to read an online excerpt.
Miller was born in Boston and grew up with a lasting love of the classics; she currently teaches Latin in New England. On her website, the author explains where she got the idea for a key element of story -- that Patroclus and Achilles had a love affair.
I stole it from Plato! The idea that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers is quite old. Many Greco-Roman authors read their relationship as a romantic one—it was a common and accepted interpretation in the ancient world. We even have a fragment from a lost tragedy of Aeschylus, where Achilles speaks of his and Patroclus’ “frequent kisses.”
There is a lot of support for their relationship in the text of the Iliad itself, though Homer never makes it explicit. For me, the most compelling piece of evidence, aside from the depth of Achilles’ grief, is how he grieves: Achilles refuses to burn Patroclus’ body, insisting instead on keeping the corpse in his tent, where he constantly weeps and embraces it—despite the horrified reactions of those around him. That sense of physical devastation spoke deeply to me of a true and total intimacy between the two men.
In a press release, Joanna Trollope, chair of the judges, praised the book, saying, "This is a more than worthy winner — original, passionate, inventive and uplifting. Homer would be proud of her."
Prior winners of the Orange Prize include Tea Obreht, Barbara Kingsolver, Lionel Shriver, Carol Shields, Marilynne Robinson and Zadie Smith. After the departure of its sponsor, the prize plans to continue, but presumably with a new, not-yet-identified name.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Madeline Miller, right, gets the news of her win from judge Joanna Trollope. Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press