‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin – Book Review

Blurb

‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.’

On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family – mother, brother, sister – on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace’s dungeons and bedchambers. As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family’s game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain. Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.

House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.

Review

“We live in a strange time,’ Electra said. ‘A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.”

I LOVE a good Greek tragedy. And this was great. It brought an immensely human aspect to all these characters that we know from Greek stories as this featured well known characters such as Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Iphigenia, Electra and Orestes in ways that felt utterly fresh to me. Admittedly I haven’t yet read the novels that Colm Tóibín himself says the narrative is shaped from, Aeschylus’ The Oresteia, Sophocles’ Electra and Euripides’ Electra, and Euripides’ “Orestes and Iphigenia at Aulis”, but I am familiar enough with these characters from my younger years when I read a lot of collections of Greek myths.

[be aware that there are unmarked spoilers for well known Greek tragedies following this so if you do not know anything about the fates of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and their children and wish to keep it as such then do not read ahead]

The book alternates between three main points of view, those of Clytemnestra and her children Electra and Orestes. And my absolute hands down favourite was Clytemnestra. I LOVED the humanity that Tóibín gave to this complex woman. The beginning of the book when we see her reaction to the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia at the command of her husband Agamemnon was nothing short of breathtaking. The first 65 pages from her PoV are spellbinding. To see the descent of a motherly type figure into someone capable of mariticide and yet still retain humanity is a rare feat of writing.

I was a little less happy with the PoV change to her son Orestes but that was primarily because I was enjoying Clytemnestra’s story so much. Orestes is the character that we seem to know the least about and it is here that Tóibín had to ‘colour in’ the most. And he did that in a very smart fashion by changing the narrative to third person perspective which helped retain that sense of mystery about Orestes and in this first section from his PoV it truly worked. I was very much engaged with his struggles to survive with Leander and Mitros. It totally changed the dynamic of the storyline and I loved that it gave the novel a sort of quest storyline or perhaps more accurately an adventurous aspect. I loved the relationship between Orestes and Leander especially. It was so beautifully understated and as a reader it made me sense a somewhat unspoken deep love between the two. Aka I shipped these two so hard!!!

Electra’s PoV was the briefest. But wow did it hit me hard. I loved how I had no clue what her aims or motivations were. She confused me the most and seemed to be the most damaged by all the tragic events in her family (the initial filicide, the vengeful mariticide and the eventual matricide). I was totally taken in by her. The way she was written gave her an almost ethereal quality.

It was after this that the book started to get a little messy and dragged in my opinion. I found the climax of Orestes’ story and the depiction of the killing of Clytemnestra from Orestes’ PoV a little cold prose-wise. As a reader I felt slightly alienated from the humanity of the story which is what had been my favourite aspect up to that point. The once beautifully sparse style of Tóibín’s writing which worked so well at the beginning just felt more awkward to me. Almost perfunctory.

However on the whole there was much to enjoy in this read. I especially loved the brief allusions to Irish myth mixed with the Greek. This was such an intelligently written book and one that I feel supremely satiated by once I turned the last page.

A very positive and highly recommended four stars

3 thoughts on “‘House of Names’ by Colm Toibin – Book Review

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