House of Names by Colm Tóibín

house of names

I’m sure that Colm Tóibín will be a familiar name to many of you, although I’ll admit that this is the first of his novels that I’ve read, and quite a departure from his usual type of novel, as far as I’m aware.

‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice.  Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father.  Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams.’

On the day of his daughter’s wedding, Agamemnon orders her sacrifice.

His daughter is led to her death, and Agamemnon leads his army into battle, where he is rewarded with glorious victory.

Three years later, he returns home and his murderous action has set the entire family – mother, brother, sister – on a path of intimate violence, as they enter a world of hushed commands and soundless journeys through the palace’s dungeons and bedchambers.  As his wife seeks his death, his daughter, Electra, is the silent observer to the family’s game of innocence while his son, Orestes, is sent into bewildering, frightening exile where survival is far from certain.  Out of their desolating loss, Electra and Orestes must find a way to right these wrongs of the past even if it means committing themselves to a terrible, barbarous act.

House of Names is a story of intense longing and shocking betrayal. It is a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers.

You may know Agamemnon as one of the kings who took his army to lay siege to Troy in order to bring Helen back home.  I’ll be honest, going into this novel, that is all I knew about Agamemnon.  Don’t let this put you off, however – no prior knowledge is required in order to enjoy House of Names, and, as someone who enjoys mythology and retellings of these old tales, I did enjoy this.  Purists be warned, in the author’s note, Tóibín does point out that much of the story written here is from his own imagination, although the characters are consistent those that appear in the old plays and poems about that time.

House of Names is told from the perspectives of Clytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife), and her two remaining children – her young son, Orestes, and her youngest daughter, Electra.  Each is told in the first person, and gives the reader an insight into what is going on in their minds, and the reasons for their actions or, occasionally, inaction.  I loved the insight that this gave into each character, and how it evoked a range of emotions from me, from sympathy and understanding to anger and much in-between.

My favourite character was Electra.  At the time it’s set, women were not often seen in positions of power (at least, that is my understanding) and so her being left in charge (albeit with a host of advisors) as Clytemnestra unwittingly escorts her eldest daughter to her death is quite a statement, particularly as she is relatively young at the time.  And throughout the novel, she proves herself to be an adept politician, having to play a long waiting game as her mother set in motion a chain of events that spiral out of control.

I found Clytemnestra to be quite an unusual character in many ways, and it’s hard to say if she was good or bad.  I understood why she acted as she did, and felt a great deal of sympathy for her at first.  Later in the novel, I found her to be quite frustrating, however, and wondered if she could have done more, or at least been more sympathetic to the plight of her children.  Overall, I would say that she’s a selfish character, and so I appreciated Tóibín’s ability to make me feel sympathetic towards her.

Whilst I did enjoy it overall, I did struggle a little with this novel at times.  This was in part due to the passage of time not being entirely clear, as it was hard to tell whether Agamemnon had been gone for months or years when he returned victorious from Troy (other than, by definition, a siege being a long, drawn-out affair).  In particular, neither Electra or Orestes, a young boy at the start of the novel, seemed to develop much in this period, although I may have missed the pointers that would have clarified this.

I enjoyed House of Names overall, however, and I would recommend it to fans of Greek mythology who are looking for a new take on an old tale.  House of Names was published in May by Viking.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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