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House of Names


House of Names

My experience with Colm Tóibín’s writing has been limited to BROOKLYN, which I read years ago before I moved to New York and for which I didn’t particularly care. When I read about his new novel, HOUSE OF NAMES, described as a retelling of the tragedy of Clytemnestra, I was immediately interested. Tóibín’s writing in BROOKLYN was ephemeral and lush, heartbreaking and impactful, and I wanted to see what he’d do with a Greek tale of revenge.

What Tóibín did was nothing short of brilliant. He didn’t stray far from the classic; it wasn’t set in modern times or a different location. Instead, he delves into the history and character of Orestes, the only son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and the person who brings the story to its inevitable end. Tóibín also employs differing points of view to relate the tale. Clytemnestra, Electra and Orestes all narrate, allowing access into the pain and rage they experience throughout the saga.

"Tóibín’s gift in this novel is that he keeps it classic.... HOUSE OF NAMES is bloody and terrifying, gripping and satisfying in that way you really want from a story about revenge."

The book opens with Clytemnestra, still reeling from the sacrifice of her eldest child, the beautiful Iphigenia, at the hands of her husband Agamemnon. The prose is powerful and gripping from the start, with tales of bodies being left in the sun for all to see, the smell and flies punctuating the scene. Tóibín makes us feel Clytemnestra’s anguish in the loss of her daughter and the betrayal of her husband. You root for her; you want her to find some resolve.

After a desperate Agamemnon lures Clytemnestra, Iphigenia and Orestes to his encampment with the promise of a marriage between his daughter and the great warrior Achilles, after Iphigenia’s throat is cut by her father and Clytemnestra is left in a hole for some days, after she returns to Argos and plots with Aegisthus, Agamemnon and his lover are murdered. Their bodies are left for those attending the end-of-war celebrations to see. Clytemnestra, satisfied in her revenge, cannot see what is coming next.

Aegisthus’ men have kidnapped Orestes. He eventually lands in captivity with the sons and grandsons of council members whom Clytemnestra ordered kidnapped after Iphigenia’s murder. With two older boys, Mitros and Leander, Orestes escapes his captors and finds refuge at the home of an old woman who lives hidden near the sea. The boys kill the dogs she keeps as protection and in turn vow to protect her until she dies. Here in the old woman’s house, they find some semblance of happiness, and after a period of five years, she dies, followed shortly by the sickly Mitros. Leander and Orestes can finally set out for home.

Tóibín’s gift in this novel is that he keeps it classic. While some may long for a modern telling of this tale, it isn’t needed in this case. He expands our understanding of Orestes and the journey he takes from being a young boy who only wants to swordfight to a confused and scared teen to a young man seeking the truth about his family’s past. We see too, from Electra’s vantage point, the anger and resentment she harbors for her mother after the initial murders transpired. The narratives of the three main characters are woven seamlessly together through Tóibín’s exquisite prose.

HOUSE OF NAMES is bloody and terrifying, gripping and satisfying in that way you really want from a story about revenge.

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on May 19, 2017

House of Names
by Colm Tóibín

  • Publication Date: March 6, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 1501140221
  • ISBN-13: 9781501140228