Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Book Review: House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Title: House of Names
Author: Colm Tóibín
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: 9 May 2017
Pages: 288
Format: eBook - EPUB
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: ARC via NetGalley

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“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.(Goodreads Synopsis)


I have long loved the tales surrounding Orestes and Electra, so I was thrilled to obtain an ARC of Colm Tóibín's  House of Names. Overall, I found it a delightful, visceral read. Tóibín takes the original stories as a basis for his plot, but he adds characters and changes scenarios here and there, creating a completely new version of this family drama. This means that, although it is familiar, there is also something different and exciting for those who already know the Ancient Greek plays. For me, Clytemnestra came across the best. While I also enjoyed the segments that focused on Orestes and Electra, it was their mother who shone as the central figure in the piece, haunting the tale even in death. The only reason this gets four stars from me and not five is the fact that I found the portrayal of Electra a little wishy-washy at times. I never got a strong sense of who she was, compared to the beautiful characterisation of Clytemnestra. Nevertheless, as always, Tóibín's prose is eminently readable and I tore through the pages, always loath to set the book aside each night. I would recommend this book to fans of Tóibín's writing and for lovers of Greek myth who are looking for new takes on classic tales.

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