Colm Tóibín knows how to tell a story. I read House of Names in a fever of sorts, in less than 48 hours, barely able to unglue my eyes from my ereader. It’s the sort of book where you think you’ll just read 10 pages before bed and end up reading 50, and while you’re reading you forget to breath, and find yourself gasping for air when the book is shut.
House of Names is a re-telling of one of the foundational stories of Greek mythology. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the war against Troy, sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia in order to secure a safe journey for his ships. In revenge, his wife, Clytemnestra, slits his throat almost as soon as he gets back from the war. Years later, with his sister Electra acting as an accomplice, their son Orestes avenges his father by killing his mother. In Tóibín’s version, part of the story is narrated by Clytemnestra, part of it by Electra, and the rest follows Orestes from a third-person perspective. The bare bones of the novel aren’t particularly different from the summary I just gave, except Tóibín also added a long account of what Orestes gets up to in the years between his father’s death and that of his mother (which you don’t really get in any classical version of this story), as well as a sub-plot concerning rebellion and dissent towards Clytemnestra’s rule.
Tóibín keeps the setting ancient and Greek–as opposed to transposing the story to, say, modern-day halls of power, such as Westminster or the Kremlin–but, of course, when it comes to mythology, it’s hard not to catch reflections of current issues. In interviews, Tóibín himself has drawn comparisons between the way violence begets violence in this one family, and the way violence begets violence between neighbours during a civil war, as it did in Northern Ireland, and as it does in Syria. I myself couldn’t help thinking of “alternative facts” when Clytemnestra, as newly self-appointed dictator, creates a different narrative to explain her husband’s demise, even when she herself had displayed Agamemnon’s fly-strewn corpse outside her palace. At one point, when someone confronts her with the truth, she orders his whole family disappeared, their house razed down, and even the rubble carted away. These are not, perhaps, particularly original themes–indeed, the notion of violence begetting violence was there in the original story–but it doesn’t make the violence any less brutal, or Clytemnestra’s rewriting of the truth any less chilling.
Clytemnestra is perhaps the book’s best character. Her rage and grief (and newfound atheism) at the death of her daughter is persuasive motivation for the murder of her husband, and the way she retreats into herself after the fact is profoundly sad, even as she fashions herself as a ruthless, lying dictator. Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice, is almost an afterthought in many versions of the story, but here he emerges as a compellingly sinister (and weirdly sex-crazed) villain, somewhat unbelievable perhaps in the way he sneaks around undetected in the lead-up to Agamemnon’s killing, but a scene-stealer all the same. Orestes, too, is a bit of a non-entity in many versions of the story, but here we watch him mature into a quiet, watchful young man, seemingly passive, his head full of thoughts and feelings he can barely process, but ready to spring into action when his life is threatened or he perceives a great injustice. Finally, I found Electra a frustrating character. On the one hand, her hatred of her mother and devotion to her father are incomprehensible in the wake of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, and Tóibín doesn’t make a huge effort at finding a persuasive reason for these feelings. On the other hand, in the woefully small fraction of the novel that’s told from her perspective, she emerges as the book’s sharpest political mind, quickly sizing up different people and their strategies and summing them up with vivid, devastating analogies: Clytemnestra nothing but “an ungainly peacock”, Aegisthus “like the eagle that captures smaller birds and bites their wings off and keeps them alive so that they will nourish it when the time is right.”
I enjoyed this book. It’s not the most original spin on Greek mythology I’ve ever encountered, but what it does, it does well: the characters are compelling, some of the images are particularly memorable, the general atmosphere is pleasingly chilling, and the words are arranged in such way that you’ll have a hard time stopping for air.
Trigger warning: A character is raped. Also, there is a short but graphic episode of violence against dogs.
Read more: I made a list of my favourite modern retellings of Greek myths.
I was given a free copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.