Review: House of Names, Colm Toibin

I first learned the rough plot of The Oresteia as a nine year-old. Studying the Greek and Roman myths, the story’s lead characters feature in the prologue to The Luck of Troy. Learning of their subsequent fate, I remember thinking it was incredibly depressing. A quarter of a century later, my opinion has not shifted. It really is one of those dreadful ‘And then everybody died’ stories. Still, I’m a fan of Colm Toibin as a writer and the galley had been sitting in my Kindle for an indecently long time so I put on my Greek Mythology Challenge with the others. While the royal family of Mycenae may seem an unusual choice of subject for a writer better known for his novels about ordinary women, when you look closer, it’s actually not so surprising. Clytemnestra may be the wronged queen wreaking her vengeance but in House of Names she is a grieving mother. With not a single deity named in the whole novel, this is a version of the tale that remains stubbornly earthbound.

Opening with the savage scene of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Toibin spares his reader nothing. The rising horror and humiliation as Clytemnestra and her daughter realise that they have not been summoned to the coast for a wedding. The cold panic as it becomes clear that nothing will dissuade Agamemnon from his plan. We do not even get the cold consolation of the exchange of the deer at the last minute. Iphigenia screams as she meets her brutal death. She never stops struggling against it. It does not feel like myth. It feels real. Agamemnon’s desire to curry favour with his troops, his refusal to lose face in front of them by backing down. Clytemnestra’s raw fury and betrayal – she is captured and buried alive for three days afterwards. Of course she seeks her revenge. How could you ever get out from under such a trauma?

Clytemnestra seeks out her husband’s greatest enemy, his cousin Aegisthus. She invites him into her bed, the two of them plotting Agamemnon’s destruction. Yet when he returns at last, with an improbably smug Cassandra in tow, murdering him does not bring Clytemnestra the satisfaction that she had expected. Instead there is even more destruction to follow. Flanking her narrative are her two surviving children, the eerie Electra and the bovine Orestes, seeking to avenge their father. The desire to seek justice for such a parent never really made sense to me even as a child. Did they forget what he did to their sister? In honesty, even with Toibin’s beautiful writing, it still doesn’t really hang together. Yes, Electra felt invisible next to her sister. Many people can relate to feelings of insecurity alongside their siblings. It doesn’t mean that you would turn a blind eye when your father slices their neck open because he thinks it will change the way the wind is blowing.

A blind-folded young woman stands bare-breasted beside the altar. A knife is ready to slit her throat. The gods lean down from heaven and offer a deer in her place.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia

Electra is an engagingly spooky narrator, padding along the hallways of the palace like a ghost. She is not the Joan of Arc figure from the original myth. She is more a cowed and stifled young woman, repressing her true sexuality and trying to stay alive. Her brother Orestes was less interesting and his sections of the novel felt like a bit of a slog. We see him taken prisoner by Aegisthus’ followers, kept in a camp with other boys where they are forced to live in silence and they write each other’s sins on a slate. Later, he escapes with two fellow-prisoners, coming to a farm run by an old woman, the eponymous House of Names. There they hide for several years before Orestes and his friend Leander finally decide to return home. Yet Orestes is no hero. He is utterly blank. And not at all quick on the uptake. It required a considerable suspension of belief to credit the notion that he never worked out who killed his father and that nobody ever told him. For seven years? Was he stupid? And later in the novel when he believes that he is about to become a father and Ianthe gently tells him that the things that they have done in the dark are not enough to conceive a child. I could pity Orestes but I did not find him interesting.

House of Names is one in a crowd of contemporary novels which grants a voice to the forgotten females of Greek mythology and it was interesting to see that from a male voice. It was clear to the eye though that Toibin was drawing the story back to his usual preoccupations. The prison where Orestes grows up is tonally similar to a Christian Brothers school, with the weekly baths and confession culture. The landscape that the boys also felt familiar to me – it wasn’t Greece. It’s definitely Ireland. Even the old lady’s stories are borrowed from a different mythology. The novel is a retelling of Greek classical mythology without anything that made it Greek in the first place.

When I think of this book, I picture mist and clouds. White corridors in the palace, thick with whispers. The story feels washed-out. The characters never seem to face each other. Each is unrecognisable when seen through the other’s eyes. Yet amidst all of the lies, dissembling and the deception, there is also horrible, horrible violence. Bloodshed. Piles of bodies. There is a real whiplash contrast between the dream-like years on the farm and what comes after. Perhaps another reason why Orestes seemed so disorientated. It was like going from The Children of the New Forest straight into Game of Thrones. Yet, Toibin has kept his cast so sparse that it is hard to believe that these people are actually in charge of a whole kingdom. It is hard to visualise real battles.

I wonder perhaps if the story would have come across more effectively onstage. It has enough unity of time, action and place and does feel quite suited to theatre. As it is, I am not sure what Toibin sought to achieve with this novel. It was admiration for his prose that kept me going until the end rather than a compelling plot. His 2012 novel The Testament of Mary had a similar premise; a key iconic figure from religion is reimagined without reference to a deity. Yet that novel was mesmerising. Mary burned with injustice, with grief, with anger at how her life had been. After the strong opening episode, House of Names fades rapidly. Somehow Toibin managed to make one of the most truly dysfunctional families in history … dull. It pains me to say this of a writer who I rate so highly but alas, somewhere Toibin lost his way within this house.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

House of Names by Colm Tóibín
Published by Penguin UK on May 18th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Sagas, Historical, General
Pages: 272
ISBN: 9780241257708

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