House of Names: Thoughtful and strongly-voiced

House of Names by Colm TóibínHouse of Names by Colm Tóibín House of Names by Colm Tóibín

The Ancient Greeks didn’t invent murder, sex, and vengeance, but they did realize the staying power of stories centering on them. As, apparently, does Colm Tóibín, whose newest work, House of Names (2017), is a retelling of the House of Atreus tale involving Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Electra, and Orestes (spoiler alert — it’s not a happy story). Nor does Tóibín bother to dress it up in contemporary garb, eschewing the usual “updating” into modern times and dress. Though perhaps that’s not wholly accurate.

While Tóibín keeps the classical setting, he strips the story of one of the aspects that made it so Greek — the gods. Whereas Aeschylus and the other Greek dramatists placed the gods at the center of things, as prime movers, as judges, Tóibín replaces them here with inner psychology (and what could be more modern than that?).

That’s not to say the gods aren’t mentioned in House of Names. When Clytemnestra finds out that her daughter Iphigenia is to be sacrificed, she’s told it’s to appease the gods and free Agamemnon’s fleet to sail off to war. But she’ll have none of that:

I was sure, fully sure, that I did not believe at all in the power of the gods … If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do? Who else would tell us what to do? I realized then that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done. In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods.

Of course, we all know what she decides to do is kill her husband when he returns from the war, something that’s actually already happened by the time we get those lines above, since this is all told in flashback, House of Names beginning post-murder with the wonderfully chilling opening line: “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” The murder of Agamemnon comes not from the gods but from easy-to-understand anger over his own murder of their child. Just as later in the story Electra’s plotting against her mother derives from Clytemnestra’s murder of her father. And so responsibility for the cycle of violence and atrocity that is the story’s theme lies not with the gods but with the all-too-human actors.

Tóibín plunges us into both woman’s interiors via a tight first-person POV, Clytemnestra’s in a more arch, classical voice, and Electra’s more down to earth if no less fierce. We learn their motivations, see their calculations, the way they turn on and off their violent thoughts and actions in a chilling fashion. While each actively plots (and achieve their desired results) they are, as well, wholly constrained, both of them by the male power of Aegisthus and by the shadows of the past (Electra somewhat literally as she tells us she speaks with them regularly).

Meanwhile, Orestes’ story makes up the rest of House of Names’s six sections. Here Tóibín brings his creative gifts to bear as the original stories never tell us where Orestes spent his time between his father’s murder and his mother’s. Tóibín has him abducted by Aegisthus and then escaping to a little lone cottage with two other former prisoners. Orestes’ story is told through third-person POV rather than first. This makes him a more passive character, which perhaps is a purposeful flipping of the male/female roles, or maybe it’s meant as commentary on how the cycle of vengeance and atrocity which is the theme of the story lies not only at the feet of those who directly perform the horrid acts but the more passive people as well — those who simply “follow orders,” do what they’re led to or told to do as Orestes does, whether he’s following his sister’s lead or his more active and charismatic friend Leander (another addition to the myth).

The way Tóibín moves beyond a tight focus on the immediate family members broadens the tragedy and the violence. The countryside is destroyed by the civil war and tyranny, village after village is emptied of life; mothers bemoan the loss of children dragged off to fight in battles not of their making; wives, grandparents, cousins, sisters, brothers, all become victims as they’re used as pawns in the greater game. Somewhat ironically, I found myself much more moved by these outside-the-House characters. And it is one of these — Leanders’ sister, raped and left for dead, who offers a hint of an end to the cycle.

Otherwise, I was surprised at how flat much of the book felt to me, once I moved past Clytemnestra’s opening section, which I thought brilliantly forceful and compelling. For all we’re in the head of Electra, it’s never quite clear to me why she feels the way she does; her father, after all, did kill her sister. And Orestes’ passivity, combined with the more distant third-person POV, makes it difficult for his character to grab the reader. Meanwhile, the setting itself acted somewhat as a barrier to full entry into the tale as it never felt fully there; instead it comes at us in random, vague encounters, often violent ones. Had I not known the source of the tale, I’m pretty sure I would never have placed this story in Ancient Greece, neither the time nor the place. Orestes’ imprisonment, for example, felt like it could have been a boarding school run by harsh priests. Perhaps, like Orestes’ passive nature, this is purposeful on Tóibín’s part — making the point maybe that this cycle of violence is all too universal and all too timeless, but thinking that doesn’t make the setting any more vividly engaging.

There’s a lot to admire in House of Names, particularly in Clytemnestra’s voice, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I ended with a sense of disappointment. I felt often as I were straining to reach some stronger response, some more powerful connection with the themes and characters, almost to do just that, but then my hands would pass right through it like mist or the ghosts of the dead and I’d have to start all over again. A disappointing Tóibín novel is still a work that will reward in places and one that will leave you thinking about it well after you’ve closed the last page, but I can’t help but feel this was a missed opportunity.

Published May 9, 2017. From the thrilling imagination of bestselling, award-winning Colm Tóibín comes a retelling of the story of Clytemnestra—spectacularly audacious, violent, vengeful, lustful, and instantly compelling—and her children. “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.” So begins Clytemnestra’s tale of her own life in ancient Mycenae, the legendary Greek city from which her husband King Agamemnon left when he set sail with his army for Troy. Clytemnestra rules Mycenae now, along with her new lover Aegisthus, and together they plot the bloody murder of Agamemnon on the day of his return after nine years at war. Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to these bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child. In House of Names, Colm Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. He brilliantly inhabits the mind of one of Greek myth’s most powerful villains to reveal the love, lust, and pain she feels. Told in fours parts, this is a fiercely dramatic portrait of a murderess, who will herself be murdered by her own son, Orestes. It is Orestes’ story, too: his capture by the forces of his mother’s lover Aegisthus, his escape and his exile. And it is the story of the vengeful Electra, who watches over her mother and Aegisthus with cold anger and slow calculation, until, on the return of her brother, she has the fates of both of them in her hands.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. I’m on the fence about reading this one. Yours is the second review I’ve encountered that talks about the passivity of some characters as an obstacle.

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