Book review: House of Names

Colm Tóibín I have a sketchy knowledge of Greek literature [lost in the misty years since my literature degree] and so approached House of Names by Colm Tóibín with a sense of trepidation combined with anticipation of reading something new. As always with Colm Tóibín’s novels, the writing is exquisite but House of Names did, for me, lack an emotional connection. And I’m not sure why.

The novel begins with the story of Agamemnon, warrior king, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia to the gods in the hope of victory in battle. However this novel is not about the king but what happens next. Tóibín imagines the continuance of the story, of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, daughter Electra and son Orestes. As always with classical literature, it is easy to find parallels with modern life, in politics, war and television. Double-crossing, lies, scheming politicians, vengeful soldiers, royal disagreements, distrustful servants, sibling rivalry, kidnapping and violence.

We share Clytemnestra’s version of the story first, told in first person and more vivid for that, as her husband murders their daughter rather than celebrating her marriage. Clytemnestra broods and plans her revenge, revenge which she takes with her own hand. But the central question in this story is who is telling the truth. Did Clytemnestra arrange for the ‘safe-guarding’ of her son Orestes and the banishment to the dungeon of her daughter Electra? Or was it her new ally, the prisoner-turner-lover Aegisthus?

The story then switches to Orestes who is marched across country to be imprisoned with a group of kidnapped boys. The title of the novel comes from this section, told in the third person it moves slower. Orestes, with friend Leander, escapes captivity and wanders the barren countryside, on the edge of starvation, until they stumble on refuge in a cottage by the sea occupied by an elderly woman. With Electra’s viewpoint, the narration switches back to first person. Electra is the most enigmatic, conversing with spirits, moving silently, observing the plotting. Is she simply a watcher, or has she inherited the vengeful nature of her mother? Through Electra we finally put together the pieces of Agamemnon’s death and the subsequent intrigue, though it pays to be patient as some things only make sense as the end approaches. Somewhere through the tale the emphasis is placed on the violence of Clytemnestra’s revenge while the event which sparked her fury – her husband’s murder of Iphigenia – becomes blurred.

I did not research Aeschylus’ Oerestia before reading House of Names and there are other reviews online which efficiently compare the original with Tóibín’s re-imagining. However I do feel that an ignorance of the original is perhaps helpful when reading a novel such as this, I was able to relax into the story without worrying about changes made and diversions taken.

Colm Tóibín is one of my favourite authors and House of Names, though an experimental read for me, has not changed my mind.

Read my reviews of two other Tóibín novels:
Brooklyn
Nora Webster

If you like this, try:-
‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler
‘New Boy’ by Tracy Chevalier
‘The Little Red Chairs’ by Edna O’Brien

‘House of Names’ by Colm Tóibín [UK: Viking] Buy now

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