Arifa Akbar: A debut that makes history riveting and sexy

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It is unfortunate that the hoopla around this year's Orange prize was not about the winner but the sponsor. Of course the question of sponsorship remains, but it should not overshadow Madeline Miller's moment.

Miller was a surprising winner – a debut author jostling among some seasoned contemporaries – but her achievement is deserved. Accessibility has been one of the cornerstone principles of this prize and The Song of Achilles certainly opens up The Iliad to a wide audience. Joanna Trollope said that Miller had "done Homer proud" and pre-empted charges against originality by reminding us that all literature was derivative.

Miller has made the oldest war epic riveting, sexy, and relevant to the present-day. What's even more impressive is that Miller's endeavour could easily have gone wrong. As a Greek and Latin teacher who has worked on this novel for the past decade, her expertise might have led the fiction to be too weighed down by her learning, and its drama to be wooden – more of an erudite homage than a true act of the imagination. As it is, The Song of Achilles is a page-turner with heart and soul, and it wears its learning lightly.

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